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That all changed early last year in the southern province of Abyan. As Saleh tried to fend off a strong challenge to his 33-year rule from a combination of peaceful demonstrators and entire military brigades defecting, AQAP saw its chance to stake a claim for Yemeni soil. Jihadists stormed military camps and arsenals and made off with huge quantities of ammunition and military hardware, including several tanks.
These were used to seize control of towns like Zinjibar, Jaar, Shaqra and their surrounding villages. The pretext for the attacks was that Abyan was being overrun by criminal gangs that were taking advantage of lax law enforcement while Yemeni forces were caught in a standoff between pro- and anti-Saleh loyalists in Sana'a. AQAP's fighters advertised themselves as saviors, and by the summer of 2011 they were in control of much of the province.
If the jihadists were expecting a joyous welcome from the locals in Abyan, they were quickly proved wrong. While some townsfolk did embrace them--especially in the traditionally conservative bastion of Jaar--most fled for Aden, the nearest city still controlled by the government. The exodus accelerated as AQAP and its offshoot, Ansar al-Sharia, set up Taliban-style rule. "They showed themselves to be ignorant yahoos," says Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
It was worse than that. Mosque attendance was made mandatory, with laggards facing a whipping. Thieves had their right hands sawed off as punishment. Those who dared to oppose the jihadists were hanged or garroted, their bodies placed on crucifixes for public display. "They started to behave like the criminal gangs themselves," says Quraish Ahmed Zakat, a schoolteacher from Zinjibar now living in Aden. "If they wanted your house, you had to leave. If you questioned them, you could be declared an enemy of Islam and killed." By the end of 2011, Zinjibar had become a ghost town, with most of its residents crowded into makeshift refugee camps in Aden.
It wasn't until Saleh--who had been badly injured in an assassination attempt in June 2011 even as jihadists were infiltrating Abyan--finally gave up power after protracted negotiations that Yemen began to get serious about AQAP. Saleh was replaced by his longtime Vice President, Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was elected in February for a two-year transitional period after the anti-Saleh parties agreed to let him stand unopposed. The new President made the liberation of Abyan, his home province, his top priority.