GHAIL BAWAZIR, Yemen — The tanks rolled into the rural Yemeni town in the Hadhramaut region at dawn. Helicopters and fighter jets circled overhead before the electricity went down and terrified residents cowered in their homes.
But on closer inspection, the massive show of force, ostensibly against Al-Qaeda, may have had less to do with the U.S. war on terror than it would appear, and demonstrates how local politics in Yemen could be complicating U.S. counterterrorism efforts there.
Arrested a day after the bombing of his hometown of Ghail Bawazir began, Omar Ashour — a customs official whose central role involved leading a crackdown on the smuggling of goods across Yemen's northern border with Saudi Arabia — was charged with being Al-Qaeda's local commander, or emir.
Stopped at a military checkpoint after a meeting with local government officials to complain about the heavy-handed actions of Yemen's armed forces, Ashour was shackled, bundled into a military transport plane with his son, Abdullah, and other alleged militants and airlifted to the capital, Sanaa.
"I thought it was one of those TV programs where any minute someone would appear with a camera and it all turns out to be a prank," said Ashour, who was released 20 days later but was unable to return to his job as a senior customs officer, having been replaced almost immediately upon his arrest.
But this was no joke. As Ashour sat with his wrists and ankles manacled in the back of the plane with his fellow captives, he and his son faced the prospect of a death sentence for their alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
The government said the storming of Ghail Bawazir and its popular oasis of recreational swimming pools in the midst of Hadhramaut's harsh desert landscape was necessary to crush an attempt by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Sharia, its insurgent wing, to take control of the town. Ghail Bawazir lies 45 kilometers east of Mukalla, the provincial capital, on Yemen's southeastern Arabian Sea coast.
State media lauded the attack, and President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi sent a message to the armed forces in the wake of the operation.
"What you did today ... reinforces our confidence in your ability to pursue the remnants of the terrorist elements of Al-Qaeda until they are uprooted," he said.
Yemen's Ministry of Defense said seven militants were killed in the June operation, which included the bombing of farms on the outskirts of the town. No bodies were ever found.
The offensive culminated in the arrest of 13 men, most notably Ashour, the so-called AQAP emir in Ghail Bawazir. Despite the claims of success, none of those arrested turned out to be militants and all were later released.
Ashour, who said he was treated well during his detention, suspects the whole operation was smoke and mirrors. He believes the ulterior motive behind his capture was that he had been too good at his job of curbing smuggling across the Saudi border.
Yemen's government, Ministry of Defense and headquarters in Hadhramaut's military Zone 2 did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the Ghail Bawazir offensive and the arrest of Omar Ashour.
An official not authorized to speak to media said Ashour's arrest was a case of mistaken identity, and the main reason behind the attack was "to dismantle a motorbike assassination cell."
Ashour had served as director of Wadeah Customs Department on the northern border with Saudi Arabia since 2012. In his role, he said he had more than doubled the government's revenue gathered by the capture of illegally transported goods over the border, compared with the previous year, in the space of nine months, from under 3.5 billion Yemeni rials (about $162,000) in 2011 to more than 7 billion ($330,000). Intercepting everything from motorbikes and cars to illegal pesticides, Ashour said he had been successfully cracking down on the lucrative free flow of illicit goods between the two countries.
"Big businessmen and sheiks were affected," said Ashour, without wanting to expand on who may have been most directly affected by his efforts.
Yemen's central customs authority failed to respond to a request for comment other than to confirm Ashour's position as a customs officer.
Several of Ashour's fellow detainees had previously fought against Ansar al-Sharia with the pro-government militias of the Popular Committees in the province of Abyan.
Southern Hadhramaut's director of security, Fahami Mahroos, concurred that Ashour and his son were not connected to Al-Qaeda. Mahroos, incredulous at the actions of the armed forces, said he had no prior knowledge of the military's intention to storm the town and questioned claims of alleged militants being killed during the attack.
"No names. No corpses," Mahroos said. "So we cannot confirm that those people were killed."
While the president heaped praise on the military, the population of Ghail Bawazir was and remains incensed by the government's actions. Mahroos spent the days after the attack trying to placate local residents.
A strong secessionist town, Ghail Bawazir has produced many prominent politicians, such as South Yemeni separatist leader Ali Salim al-Beidh and former Prime Minister Faraj Bin Ghanim, both graduates of the renowned Wusta School, which now sits derelict in the center of town.
The school's motto, still visible in the peeling white paint of its crumbling walls, reads, "The man is well known by his deeds," and serves as a pertinent reflection of the origins of residents' current sentiment toward Sanaa.
"Al-Qaeda is a big lie," said Omar Abdullah Hamdul, an English teacher in Ghail Bawazir who supports southern independence from the north. "What happened in Ghail is a kind of punishment from the state, and this is not the government, not the state that we want here."
Residents of Ghail Bawazir fiercely defend their cultural heritage and are unafraid to voice their dissatisfaction against a northern government viewed as an occupier. The call for independence from the north and a return to the separate southern state of the pre-1990 period, before Yemeni unification, is manifested in the former southern flag of the socialist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen blanketing walls and intersections throughout the town.
The June military operation was perceived by Ghail Bawaziris as an attempt to crush the spirit of the anti-government movement. They believed Al-Qaeda was used as an excuse to brand the town as a militant hotbed that required strong military intervention to maintain government control.
But the mark of the Southern Movement, or Hirak, is not the only flag signifying a challenge to central government control in Ghail Bawazir.
The distinctive black and white flag adopted by Al-Qaeda also peppers roadsides and public buildings, although local residents deny a notable presence of the militants, claiming a few youths are responsible.
"Those interested to join are numbered by fingers, and the government knows their whereabouts," said Taha Bafadhel, a journalist and writer who lives in Ghail Bawazir.
Adding to local residents' anger are U.S. drones, which are and have been a constant presence in the skies over the town both before and after the offensive.
"I have two daughters," said oil engineer Fadi Jamal Sowail. "Since what happened here in Ghail Bawazir, if I want to scare them, I point to the drones in the sky and they run."
The animosity highlights America's vulnerability to being sucked into the increasingly sensitive issue of southern secession and myriad Yemeni domestic issues that are at risk of being conflated with an Al-Qaeda insurgency.
Ashour's case also raises the question of the personal agendas of Yemen's elite encroaching on the United States' counterterrorism strategy.
"At a time when the U.S. needs to have as clear as possible a picture of what is happening in Yemen," said Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge," a book on AQAP, "all too often it finds itself merely guessing and flying blind over a complicated and chaotic mess."