Al-Qaeda assumes policing role in eastern Yemen amid security vacuum

Women loyal to the Houthi group participate in an anti-Saudi protest outside the United Nations headquarters in Sanaa May 14, 2015.  A vigilante group linked to Al-Qaeda in the eastern port city of Mukalla has decreed a ban on trading the m
Women loyal to the Houthi group participate in an anti-Saudi protest outside the United Nations headquarters in Sanaa May 14, 2015.  A vigilante group linked to Al-Qaeda in the eastern port city of Mukalla has decreed a ban on trading the mild narcotic leaf qat chewed as a cherished Yemeni pastime, in a sign of the group's growing territorial hold amid the country's civil war. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO/DUBAI (REUTERS) - A vigilante group linked to Al-Qaeda in the eastern port city of Mukalla has decreed a ban on trading the mild narcotic leaf qat chewed as a cherished Yemeni pastime, in a sign of the group's growing territorial hold amid the country's civil war.

A security vacuum in Yemen's east is giving Al-Qaeda freer rein to enforce social rules and make arrests, residents say.

A newly-formed body of armed tribesmen and Sunni Muslim clerics assumed control over much of eastern Yemen's oil-producing province of Hadramawt after army units abandoned it last month.

The so-called "security directorate" - which officials say is made up of Al-Qaeda members - in the province's seaside capital Mukalla issued its qat ban on Wednesday and Yemeni social media users shared pictures of militants standing beside flaming bales of the crop in the city's streets.

Hadramawt's new authorities have given Al-Qaeda fighters unprecedented leeway to hold rallies and carry arms in public, residents say.

"They have an Islamic court, people go to them to present complaints and they have patrol cars, but up til now they did not interfere in people's private affairs," Mukalla resident Salem Abdullah said by telephone.

A Saudi-led coalition is bombing Iranian-backed Houthis who now control much of the Arabian Peninsula's poorest country and have made gains toward Hadramawt, Yemen's largest province.

Hadramawt's ruling body, the Council of Islamic Scholars, wrapped Al-Qaeda into local administration in order to avoid infighting, a local official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, but the alliance is tense.

"We had no option but to reach an understanding with those elements, otherwise there would have been a confrontation that would have led to war, destruction and civilian casualties."

Tensions on the heightened role of the militants fester in Mukalla.

A video was posted online last week of hundreds chanting at a rally: "No to Al-Qaeda, no to the Houthis!"

Yemen's branch of the militant network, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has for years carried out bomb and gun attacks on Yemeni state facilities, plotted to blow up US-bound airliners and claimed responsibility for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January that killed 12.

The United States is concerned that the Arab-led war on the Houthis will give AQAP more space to plot attacks but it has kept pressure on the group.

A suspected drone strike on a car in downtown Mukalla killed four of the group's leaders.