Where Terrorists Have Tanks: A Ride Through al-Qaeda Country

TIME's Bobby Ghosh and Yuri Kozyrev embedded with a Yemeni unit in early July as it patrolled territory only recently reclaimed from al-Qaeda and its proxies.

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

A Yemeni soldier surveys the wreckage of his home in Zinjibar, in Abyan province, July 11, 2012. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) occupied a big swath of Abyan before being driven out by a combination of government troops, armed groups of citizens and US drone attacks.

Between us, war photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I have embedded with many of the world’s most powerful militaries — American, British, Russian, NATO, Indian. But nothing could have prepared us for our road trip through Yemen‘s volatile Abyan province, with a patrol from the country’s Central Security Force. We know it was going to be like nothing we’d experienced before when we arrive, at the crack of dawn, at the designated checkpoint on the outskirts of the southern coastal city of Aden. Our patrol, it turns out, was a single Toyota pickup truck, with a rusty 12.7mm machine-gun mounted on the back and a seven-man squad. If we want to go with them, Yuri and I would have to BYOV… bring our own vehicle.

The driver of our minivan-taxi is not keen to chase after a military vehicle through territory that only weeks ago was controlled by the jihadist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His anxiety is not eased when the soldiers, unused to escorting a civilian vehicle, keep speeding out of sight ahead of us. Communications were spotty: they don’t have radios, and cellphone service works only occasionally. It takes over an hour before we have, through frantic hand signals, persuaded them to let us set the pace.

(VIDEO: Volatile Yemen: Uprisings and Al-Qaeda)

By then, we are already in the outskirts of Jaar, a town famous for housing many Yemeni mujahideen who had returned from the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. When AQAP seized control of Abyan in early 2011, Jaar was their unofficial capital. And even though Yemeni forces reclaimed the town last May, many jihadists are believed to have simply blended into the local population. “This is not a safe place,” says 2nd Lieutenant Tariq Bishr, leader of our squad. “I can tell by the way people are looking at us.”

I’m acutely aware that we are poorly equipped to handle an ambush: the soldiers carry AK-47s, but so too do many townsfolk. Neither of our vehicles is armored. I had been grateful that, unlike many Western militaries, the CSF had not required us (or the soldiers) to wear body-armor: after all, it’s 110F and incredibly humid. But now I feel vulnerable, naked. I can tell from the soldiers’ body language that they don’t want to hang around here.

Even so, Bishr is patient and alert as we stop to inspect some of the damage done to the town during the fighting. At a home flattened by what is believed to be a U.S. drone strike, some townsfolk grow agitated when they learn Yuri and I represent a U.S.-based magazine. On the pickup, gunner Wael al-Jahmi, draped with ammunition belts that must weight 30 pounds, makes a show of polishing the 12.7mm gun. His comrade Alawi al-Yadri, incongruous in his leather ear-muffs (“Protection from the wind,” he explains.) stands protectively close to Yuri; Lt. Bishr’s got my back.

Things are more relaxed at the local hospital, which was hit by another missile. Indoors, the soldiers breathe easy, and take the opportunity to pull out their cellphones and photograph the wreckage. They’re amazed that the missile struck the only ward of the hospital that had housed AQAP fighters: such accuracy could only be attributed to the Americans, Bishr decided.

(MORE: Al-Qaeda Brings the Fight to Yemen’s Capital)

Accuracy is less evident at our next stop: the town of Zinjibar, or at least the bombed-out shell of what used to be the town of Zinjibar. The soldiers are as awestruck as Yuri and I by the total devastation. Unlike in Jaar, most of this town’s 20,000 residents had fled when AQAP arrived. Since the town was empty, the jihadists were able to mine and booby-trap it extensively, and the Yemeni forces were able to pound it with artillery and air strikes with relatively little worry about civilian casualties. The only civilians who had remained were either AQAP sympathizers or members of the Popular Committee, a group of locals who had banded together to fight the jihadists.

More than a month after Zinjibar was “liberated,” it remains for the most part a ghost town: there are a few checkpoints, manned either by the Popular Committee or by soldiers from the CSF. Some of the townsfolk who did return were killed or maimed by mines and booby-traps, discouraging others from leaving makeshift refugee camps in Aden. Many soldiers have also been killed while trying to de-mine the streets and the wreckage of homes. It may be months before Zinjibar is habitable again.

We move through the town with extreme caution, making sure we’re always on asphalt, where (we hope) there can be no mines. At the southern edge of town, we come upon the scene of the fiercest battle of the war, evidenced by the burned-out shells of two Soviet-built T-62 tanks. They were stolen last year by AQAP, but the jihadists were unable to use them to any great effect and they were easily taken out by air strikes. Gunner Jahmi scrambles on top of one tank, and peers inside. “Everybody dead… Boom!” he says, with a toothy grin.

The CSF soldiers manning the nearby checkpoint look on in amusement. Our arrival is a welcome diversion from the tedium of checking the occasional car that comes through. It’s midday now, and blazing hot. At the change of shift, a couple of soldiers tread gingerly into the wreckage of a row of shops, and lie down in the debris for a bit of rest. There are no tents, no sleeping bags, no meals-ready-to-eat. Yemen, one of the world’s poorest nations, can’t afford to give its victorious soldiers the equipment most armies take for granted.

(PHOTOS: Yemen on the Brink)

When we meet up with the local Popular Committee, Lt. Bishr grows tense again. He is not impressed by their stories of how they fought and killed AQAP fighters. He suspects some of these men switched sides when the battle was going badly for the jihadists. “They are al-Qaeda, without the beards,” he mutters.

When it’s time for lunch, the patrol makes its way back to the checkpoint on the outskirts of Aden, where we grab a meal of rice and roast chicken at a highway rest-stop. Then it’s back into Abyan, for another pass trough towns that AQAP had declared independent “Emirates” during their occupation. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, AQAP imposed harsh justice on people it deemed guilty of any crimes. We stop in a village to meet two men who were ruled to have been thieves: their right hands were sawed off at the wrist. The Popular Committee leader from Zinjibar seems unsympathetic. “Well, that’s the punishment for stealing,” he says. Lt. Bishr gives me a look that says, “See what I mean?”

Our last stop is the village of Hajjar, which is even more desolate than Zinjibar: only wild dogs run through its dusty, mine-filled lanes. Only the previous day, a member of a de-mining team was killed in an explosion. Our soldiers are especially anxious about Yuri, who is so lost in the viewfinder of his camera that he periodically strays off the asphalt. After several heart-in-the-mouth moments, we scramble back into our car. Just before we set off, the gunner waves at me, inviting me to join him on the back of the pickup. As we take off down the highway at break-neck speed, Yadri’s earmuffs begin to make a great deal of sense.

When the patrol returns to the checkpoint at the end of the day, Lt. Bishr is relieved to have come through with no harm coming to his civilian charges. “You are lucky,” he says. Yuri and I have to agree.

MORE: How al-Qaeda Is Gaining in Its War Against Yemen