The ancient sothern city of Taiz, in Yemen has been the hot spot of the fighting the recent months, with the Houthi movement besieging its half-a-million people as they fight forces loyal to the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, in a brutal campaign that has left hundreds dead on both sides.
“Abu Bakr’s men, heavily bearded and dressed in the traditional Maawaz, have taken part in some of the fiercest fighting, repelling Houthi attacks on their stronghold in an area known as “Republic,” and launching assaults on Houthi-controlled areas including “Cairo Castle” and “Political Security”.
But the Salafis are not fighting just to decide who will govern Yemen – Houthi or Hadi – nor which regional power will hold the strings. Their war has a much simpler purpose – revenge.
Abu Bakr, a man in his 30s from the Taiz area, wants payback for those killed when the Houthis drove the Salafi population from Dammaj in the northern province of Saada last year, after a siege stretching back to 2013.
It is a vicious cycle that has spun out of control in Taiz, trapping its people between the Houthis and tens of thousands of pro-Hadi “Popular Resistance” fighters, including the Salafis.
Abu Bakr’s group, “Islam’s Guards,” is a feared force headed by another Dammaj veteran, Adel Abdu Farea. It has expanded from 30 members to an estimated 500 in recent months thanks to local recruits and arms and funding from Saudi Arabia and Hadi.
Once the Salafis “liberate” Taiz, Abu Bakr said, their mission will be over: “We are part of the Popular Resistance in Taiz, and we received weapons from the coalition to fight the Houthis. When we liberate the province from the Houthis, we will return those weapons.”
It is a promise that many in Taiz do not believe, given the ferocity of their fighting, their hatred of the Houthis, and the belief they are allied with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Azoz Al-Samei, a leader of the Popular Resistance in the western front of Taiz, told Middle East Eye: “The Salafis are the strongest fighters in Taiz and never retreat, so the leadership in Taiz has provided them with weapons.”
He denied they had links to AQAP, and insisted there were no al-Qaeda elements among his 30,000 troops.
“These are fighters who oppose AQAP and the Houthis, and there are no fighters from AQAP within the Popular Resistance in Taiz,” he said. ”
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