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)
"2010 was the year of al-Qaeda," said Said Obaid, a terrorism analyst who wrote a book about AQAP. "They have gotten stronger."
By his own account, he added, there were more than 150 AQAP attacks last year, mostly against Yemeni security forces. In 2009, there were about 20, he said. On Saturday, senior military officials escaped an assassination attempt by suspected al-Qaeda militants in Abyan, a southern province and al-Qaeda stronghold, according to local news reports.
James R. Clapper Jr., the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned in testimony before Congress on Thursday that unless there are "more effective and sustained activities" to disrupt AQAP, the group "probably will grow stronger."
"Saleh is facing some profound challenges," Clapper said.
AQAP has gained strength in part due to a deepening resentment among southerners, who have long accused Saleh's northerner-ruled government of denying them resources, government jobs and basic services such as electricity. Over the past year, the security forces have clamped down hard on southern villages and towns it suspects of harboring al-Qaeda militants. But tribal leaders say they have targeted many people who have no links to the group.
"People don't believe in al-Qaeda's ideology. They support al-Qaeda because they are against the government," said Abdullah Hassan al-Jufri, a tribal leader in Abyan. "If Saleh steps down, of course the people will turn against al-Qaeda."
With its abundance of weapons and tribal rivalries, there is fear that Yemen could easily fall into civil war, spawning even more instability. Already, the unrest has spread to two major southern cities, Taiz and Aden, where violent, at times deadly, clashes between protesters and security forces have been erupting daily; police have killed protesters, breeding even more resentment against Saleh.
Some U.S. lawmakers and regional analysts are calling for the United States to not focus exclusively on counter-terrorism in Yemen. Increasing pressure on AQAP, they say, also requires pressing Saleh and his government to meet the needs of Yemenis, especially their demands for more freedoms.
"If countries like Yemen fail to do this, transitions could create a less favorable outcome for their people, for the region, and for the United States," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week.
Staff writers Peter Finn and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.
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