The Popular Committees of Abyan, Yemen: A Necessary Evil or an Opportunity for Security Reform?

This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More


In early 2011, Yemeni youths took to the street to demand the downfall of the regime and much-needed democratic reforms. This eventually led to the removal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power later the same year. The political turmoil associated with the uprising has resulted in an alarming deterioration of the security situation throughout the country, most notably the seizure of two major cities in the southern governorate of Abyan by Ansar al-Shariah (AAS), an offshoot of al-Qa`ida. Backed by the Yemeni government, the Popular Committees (PCs), local armed resistance groups, pushed AAS out of major cities in Abyan.

The PCs are an indigenous movement whose mandate and function are rooted in and inspired by the tribal tradition of collective responsibility in which local men volunteer to maintain security in their communities. While their members include tribesmen, the PCs do not represent any particular tribes. They are hybrid ad hoc entities that rose up in response to the deteriorating security situation. They find the term “militias” that the media uses to describe them offensive and derogatory, and one that does not fit with the positive things that they have been doing for their communities. Members of the PCs come from mixed backgrounds, including tribal and non-tribal affiliations. Some of them hold high school and university degrees while others have limited education. What united them was outrage at the destruction that AAS wrought in Abyan and a desire to provide security and service to their communities.

The structure of the committees is very local. Each district, or group of districts in some cases, has their own version of PCs, but they all carry out the same function. Popular Committees exist in other governorates that have experienced deteriorating security conditions and increased activity of militant groups, including Hadramawt, al-Bayda, Shabwa, and Lahj. When the AAS took over the cities of Jaar and Zinjibar in Abyan, it was the Popular Committees in Lawder, a nearby district, that prevented them from further expansion into the rest of the governorate.[1] The PCs in the Khanfar and Zinjibar districts are the ones that ultimately expelled AAS from Abyan and have continued to maintain security and order in key areas ever since.[2] This article will mainly focus on these PCs.  

In 2011, Abdulatif al-Sayed, together with a group of young fighters, led a guerrilla war in the mountains of Abyan against AAS elements. Aided by local tribes and volunteers, he and his men managed to disrupt the group’s movement and capture some of its weapons. Al-Sayed, known as the founder of the Popular Committees in Khanfar and Zinjibar, was later officially requested by the Minister of Defense to help the government fight AAS, an effort that drove the militant group out of Abyan in June 2012.[3] As the militants withdrew, the PCs stepped in to establish order and protect public interests in those areas, with the hope that this would be a temporary arrangement until the government came back to resume responsibility. More than a year and a half later, the Popular Committees are still in charge. Formal government and state institutions, including the police and the courts, remain largely absent or dysfunctional.

The most prominent role that the PCs play is providing security services such as protecting public facilities, fighting crime, arresting suspects, and guarding roads. Under the command of al-Sayed, the Committees cover six districts with at least 33 checkpoints inside and outside the cities of Jaar and Zinjibar.[4] The Committees also extend security checkpoints across the highway that goes to the province of Aden.[5] In addition to maintaining security, they help resolve local conflicts, ensure safety and order in marketplaces, track al-Qa`ida and criminal groups, control drug use, facilitate the return of government services including water, electricity, and communication, and assist aid efforts led by international organizations. The Committees operate with about 3,000 armed men who receive monthly salaries of YR 30,000 (about $150) each from the Yemeni government. Members work in teams with different functions, including a team to secure highways, a team to secure entrances of main cities, and a team to regulate traffic.[6] In a relatively short period, the PCs have gained a legitimacy that formal government has failed to establish for decades. Indeed, locals credit the relative improvement of the security situation in the governorate to the efforts of the Committees.[7]

The Popular Committees enjoy a functional relationship with local authorities and the national government. For example, they hand over captured suspects to government security agents in Aden and provide intelligence regarding the movement of suspected al-Qa`ida militants to the government. However, since June 2012, Abyan affairs have for the most part been left to the Popular Committees to manage, including guarding public facilities, tracking down militants, and even detaining captured suspects. The government has made very little effort to deploy formal security forces in the province or to renovate facilities that were destroyed during the war with AAS—and existing police and security forces lack the resources to carry out the job. “There are no police forces or even policemen in the district. There is only a district security director with a few armed men. Even police buildings are still destroyed,” said the director of Khanfar district. According to the security director of the same district, local security forces have no patrol vehicles and very little ammunition.[8]

While the PCs have continued to fill the vacuum and provide basic services to the local communities, incidents on the ground have raised some “red flags,” indicating a potentially alarming shift in which the situation might reverse and the Committees themselves might become a security threat in the long run. In a recent study commissioned by the United States Institute of Peace, most informants from Abyan indicated that the security situation there is beyond the capacity of the PCs to manage and that there is an urgent need for a return of government forces to the governorate.[9] Not only do the Committees have limited capacity to cope with the deteriorating situation, but their leaders and members have been consistently targeted by AAS. Al-Sayed has survived at least seven assassination attempts and suffered debilitating injuries as a result. In August 2012, at least 45 members were killed in a suicide bombing that targeted a funeral service for the Committees, including three of al-Sayed’s brothers [10]

In addition, the independent and decentralized nature of the Popular Committees has left little room for them to be accountable. Although the Committees draw legitimacy and an ability to organize from tribal codes and traditions, they do not fall under any particular tribe and hence their authority sometimes goes unchecked. There have been reports of Committee members abusing their power, including using excessive force and executing individuals outside the law, particularly those suspected to be involved in al-Qa`ida attacks against the PCs.[11] “The Committees outside Jaar and Zinjibar are replacing the judiciary and issuing sentences,” said a senior local judge.[12]

Al-Sayed acknowledged some isolated incidents in which members used excessive force against locals. He attributed these acts to stressful circumstances under which the Committees members work and the fact that they lack training and capacity building. He also indicated that the members who reportedly were engaged in such acts were punished by imprisonment and were sometimes discharged.[13] Evidence on the ground, however, shows that this process of discipline has led to violence within the PCs themselves. In September 2013, at least six PC members were killed in clashes between two different PC groups.[14] A local source mentioned that the clash happened when a delegation was sent by al-Sayed to discipline PC members who allegedly engaged in theft and crime.[15]

There is also the danger that the committees will unintentionally upset an already stressed social structure. In a tribal area like Abyan, with a delicate social fabric and a history of unresolved political and tribal conflicts, the work of the PCs might trigger or exacerbate existing conflicts. In April 2013, intense clashes between PC members and armed tribesmen from the Aal Saeidi local tribe led to the deaths of two PC members and three tribesmen. Clashes started when PC members killed a tribesman from Aal Saeidi four months earlier.[16] Although the PCs issued a statement in May 2013 calling for an urgent intervention by the government, the conflict remains unresolved.[17]

The Popular Committees have thus been left to shoulder the responsibility of managing Abyan’s security, among other things, without sufficient support, training, protection, or oversight from the government. While it is largely believed that they are doing the work out of a genuine sense of responsibility and willingness to serve their communities, without a clear command and control structure in place, more abuses, internal struggles, and violent conflicts are likely to happen.

While most people appreciate the services that the Committees have been providing, many local leaders believe that they are no substitute for the government and should be integrated into some sort of a formal government structure. “The PCs came as a response to the security vacuum during 2011 and 2012, but they are a time bomb,” said a local government official.[18] Some fear that if they are not integrated into the military or other formal institutions, the PCs might turn into rogue armed groups and possibly engage in crime or challenge government authority.[19]

On the other hand, there is a growing frustration among Popular Committees with the way the government has been handling them. The government has promised to recruit PC members into the military and security forces, but that promise has so far gone unfulfilled. Delays in salary payments and shortages of supplies are constant complaints among PC members. On some occasions, the PCs have blocked roads to protest the government delaying their payment.[20] Said a senior PC commander,

We are all locals and we want to support our communities. We came from society and we appeared because there was a need for us from society. Why does the Sana government treat us as if we have some kind of skin disease? We feel the government is disgusted by us. Why don't they give us uniforms? Why don't they make us part of the official police force?[21]

Without an immediate strategy to integrate the Popular Committees and strengthen the presence of security and government institutions, the security gains that have followed the expulsion of AAS from Abyan are likely to go to waste. Recent reports have indicated increasingly suspicious elements in Abyan from al-Qa`ida that are believed to be in preparation to seize a city or launch attacks against army and government facilities.[22] Frustrated and fatigued by overwhelming responsibility as well as growing threats and conflicts, the Popular Committees might not have the momentum or the capacity to prevent a resurgence this time around.

Also, some of the PCs are less civically minded and are using their influence for rent-seeking activities and extortion. “Without bringing the PCs under formal government control…the more educated and pragmatic members will drop out and leave only those elements who seek to earn money from their extra-legal activities,” says Martin Jerrett, who manages programs in Yemen for the Danish Demining Group, an organization that conducts conflict management, mine risk education, and capacity building in regard to the PCs.

The government needs to take urgent measures to bring the PCs under the purview of the Ministry of Interior and into the police forces. Not only will that prevent the PCs from becoming a problem, but it might also bring about much needed security reforms in a country where a weak central government has often relied on informal structures to face crises and security threats. “There is a great potential for the PCs. They want to be integrated into local police forces, and they will be the best at it. They know their communities, they know the people and the strangers who come in and out in their areas,” said Ahmed Alfadhli, a local tribal and civic leader who was the deputy chief of police in Abyan in the 1960s.[23] “But this has to happen soon. A year from now it might be too late, and things will get out of control.”

[1] Interview with Bassem Alfaqeer, a local lawyer, 21 November 2013, Aden.

[2] The city of Jaar that was seized by militants is located in the district of Khanfar.

[3] Interview with Abdulatif al-Sayed, Akhbar Alyawm (Yemen), 30 November 2013.

[4] The PCs cover the districts of Khanfar, Zinjibar, Rusud, Sirar, Sibah, and Ahwar. See Yemen Today video, 25 September 2013,

[5] John James, “Analysis: IDPs Return Amid Continuing Insecurity in Yemen’s War-Torn Abyan,” IRIN, 7 October 2013,

[6] Interview with Abdulatif al-Sayed, Akhbar Alyawm (Yemen) 30 November 2013.

[7] Erica Gaston and Nadwa al-Dawsari, Waiting for Change: The Impact of Transition on Local Justice and Security in Yemen, United States Institute of Peace, April 2013,  

[8] Yemen Today video, 25 September 2013.  

[9] Gaston and Al-Dawsari, Waiting for Change: The Impact of Political Transition on Local Security in Yemen, April 2013.

[10] Also, on March 3, 2014, the three-year-old son of Basheer Alameer, the Media Center Officer of the PCs, walked home with a head of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). He told his mother that an armed man gave it to him to “play with.” Alameer believes that AAS elements did this, as he has been subject to a series of assassination attempts over the past two years. Indeed, the security directorate in the district told him to be careful as he is on the AAS wanted list. Interview with Basheer Alameer, 3 March 2014.

[11] “The President’s Province in the Hands of Popular Committees,” Almasdar Online (in Arabic) (Yemen), 21 January 2013,; “Popular Committees to Execute a Young Man outside the Framework of the Law,” Aden Post (in Arabic) (Yemen), 28 August 2013,

[12] Interview with a local judge, 19 November 2013, Sana.

[13] Interview with Abdulatif al-Sayed, 30 November 2013.

[14] “Government Money Causes Clashes Between Popular Committees,” Alwasat Newspaper (in Arabic) (Yemen), 4 September 2013,

[15] Email interview with PCs Media Center Officer Basheer Alameer, 3 September 2013.

[16] “Five Killed in Violent Clashes between Popular Committees and Local Tribes in Abyan,” Almasdar Online (in Arabic) (Yemen), 20 April 2013,

[17] Press release from Popular Committees leadership, 1 May 2013; Phone interview with PCs Coordinator Basheer Alameer, 2 February 2014.

[18] Interview with Aden Deputy Governor, 21 October 2013, Aden.

[19] Gaston and Al-Dawsari, Waiting for Change: The Impact of Political Transition on Local Security and Justice, April 2013. .

[20] “Popular Committees in Ahwar District Block the Main Road,” Aden Hurrah (in Arabic) (Yemen), 20 November 2013,

[21] This statement was given during a workshop organized by the Danish Demining Group, 22 January 2014, Aden.

[22] “Popular Committees: We Tracked Intensive Activities for Al Qaeda Elements in Abyan and there is a New Plan to Seize Towns,” Aden Alghadd (in Arabic) (Yemen), 23 January 2014,

[23] Phone interview with Ahmed Alfadhli, 2 February 2014.