Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate has taken control of a city just 100 miles south of the capital, after militants led by the brother-in-law of the late U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki stormed the police station and the prison in Rada'a Saturday.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now controls seven population centers in Southern Yemen, according to officials. It has so far rebuffed attempts by the Yemeni military to retake ithe provincial capital of Zinjibar, which militants overran in May.
According to officials, Tariq al-Zahab, who was married to a sister of Awlaki, led a force of 200 militants into Rada'a Saturday. They freed as many as 150 inmates from the local prison, including al Qaeda associates, and allegedly raised the al Qaeda flag over a government building.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American who was born in New Mexico, took up permanent residence in Yemen in 2004 and became an al Qaeda recruiter and commander, according to U.S. officials. Awlaki and Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist, were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. According to AFP, tribal officials say that Awlaki's brother-in-law Zahab was named emir, or governor, of Rada'a and the surrounding region after his forces took the town.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also uses the name Ansar al-Sharia, or the Army of Islamic Law, in its battle against government forces. Fighters have allegedly sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian co-founder of al Qaeda who took command of the terror group after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last May.
AQAP also controls four other towns in Abyan province as well as a town in Shabwa province. Its territorial gains come as the central government battles widespread unrest. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, long a beneficiary of U.S. aid and an ally in the fight against al Qaeda, signed an agreement in November agreeing to step down after 33 years in power. Voters will choose his replacement in a February election.
AFP and the AP contributed to this report.