Yemen's unrest could embolden al-Qaeda - or sideline it amid democratic hopes
Nearly 3,000 students protested at Sanaa University in the Yemeni capital on Sunday, calling for the country's president to step down. The Yemeni president appeared before thousands of cheering supporters, blaming the unrest on a foreign plot. (Feb. 20)
AQAP has become a major national security concern after it was linked to a series of near-miss attacks against the United States, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner
on Christmas Day 2009 and parcel bombs that ended up on cargo planes bound for the United States.
U.S. officials are also concerned about Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical Yemeni-American cleric linked to those two plots as well as the Fort Hood shooting rampage in 2009. They say he is a top AQAP leader; the United States has ordered his assassination. Aulaqi is believed to be hiding in southeastern Yemen, protected by his tribe.
Michael Leiter, the Obama administration's top counter-terrorism official, told Congress two weeks ago that he considers AQAP and Aulaqi "probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland."
U.S. officials said they were unsure how threatening the protests are to Saleh and his government and whether any change in leadership would disrupt a major U.S. buildup of intelligence and military assets, including drones, to target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But they are watching closely to see whether Yemen's counter-terrorism campaign is diverted by the unrest.
"We are absolutely concerned that AQAP is looking for ways to exploit the protests," a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In interviews, Yemeni officials have indicated that efforts to quell the popular uprisings have taken much greater precedence over fighting al-Qaeda.
"The government and security forces are focused on the political problems because we don't want what happened in Egypt and Tunisia to happen here," said Sultan Al-Barakani, a top ruling party official. "This could allow al-Qaeda to grow stronger. . . . If the security forces are burdened or the government is weakened or falls, this is the first step for al-Qaeda to take over the country."
But Yemen's opposition dismisses such comments as those of a besieged government trying to use the specter of al-Qaeda to generate more support from the United States and to raise doubts about supporting their calls for democracy.
"The government is exaggerating the threat of al-Qaeda," said Mohammed Qahtan, a senior leader in Islah, the nation's largest and most powerful Islamist opposition party. "There are two reasons for this: The government's rule is weak, and they want to get more and more money and backing from the United States."
Over the past year, the CIA and U.S. special operations forces have expanded their presence in Yemen as part of a secret collaboration with Saleh and his government, creating an intelligence network to dismantle AQAP's leadership.
But since the failed Christmas Day plot, the group has grown more assertive and ambitious, say government officials, opposition activists, diplomats and analysts.
In addition to the parcel bomb plot, AQAP launched Inspire, an English-language jihadist magazine whose goal is to breed a new generation of terrorists in Western nations. Since August, AQAP attacks against Yemeni security forces have increased dramatically, according to Western diplomats. In April, a suicide bomber targeted the British ambassador, who survived the attack. And Aulaqi has continued to post videos and messages online to inspire his legions of followers.
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