Four years ago, Ayman Askar was in a prison in south Yemen, serving a life sentence for murder. Now he is a wealthy and important man whose friendships cut across the many lines of the fragmented civil war that has destroyed the country. Askar has recently been named the chief of security for a large district in the southern port city of Aden – appointed by the government of Yemen, on whose behalf Saudi Arabia has been bombing the country for three-and-a-half years. But Askar is also a friend and ally of the United Arab Emirates – the most aggressive partner in the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced from office by the Houthi rebellion in 2015.
The Saudis have attracted the bulk of the world’s displeasure for their bloody intervention in Yemen, but the UAE plays a more forceful role on the ground – and its allies in the south, including local militias, Salafi fighters, and south Yemen separatists who want to break away from Hadi’s government, have been known to fight against the Saudis’ own proxies in the country.
Today Askar is allied with the government of Yemen and the UAE, but not long ago he was a member of al-Qaida, the enemy of both. Thuggish and heavy-set, with a bull-like head on strong, wide shoulders, he jostled his way up the power hierarchy of prison life: he ran a grocery store in the prison yard and a PlayStation lounge in one of the cells, and befriended the strongest gang in the prison – a group of al-Qaida inmates. He prayed with them, attended their classes, grew his beard and started dressing like them, although his friends say he never joined the organisation properly because he is too opportunistic to pledge allegiance to a single cause.
When Houthi fighters from north Yemen, backed by Iran, invaded the south and toppled the government in the capital, Sana’a – forcing Hadi to flee south to Aden, and then abroad to Saudi Arabia – Askar was still in jail. But in the chaos that followed, al-Qaida fighters stormed the prison and freed its inmates. Askar joined the resistance and fought against the Houthi invaders alongside his jihadi friends, distinguishing himself as a ruthless field commander and dividing his time equally between fighting and looting.
A few months later, the Houthis were driven out of Aden by a combination of local militias, southern separatists, government forces and UAE and Saudi troops. Askar expanded his interests beyond jihad, imposing a protection racket on the port and extorting a commission from every shipment that came through. The government issued a series of arrest warrants, but he weathered them all. He soon befriended the Emirati officers who had arrived as part of the forces that took over the city – and he spent long stints in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, making connections. He was rewarded for his friendship with a lucrative transportation contract, and has since moved into the profitable business of looting large swaths of farmland around Aden.
In the summer I met Askar as he entertained friends on his farm north of Aden. The farm was lush, green and quiet – worlds away from the crowded, suffocating streets of Aden. With the bonhomie of a bandit, he joked and told stories from his last trip abroad. He and a friend had rented three Mercedes vans with their drivers, to ferry them and their wives and children around the resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, taking them to water parks, beaches and seafood restaurants.
“It was a week from heaven,” Askar told the friends gathered around him. “The children were very happy, and one could forget about all the troubles of war.”
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