Turmoil jars U.S. counterterrorism efforts
An influential Yemeni cleric this week called for Saleh to be replaced with an Islamist government, a prospect that U.S. officials said would complicate its partnership with Yemen, if not bring it to an end.
Underscoring the stakes, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. testified before Congress last month that unless U.S. and Yemeni disruption efforts are ramped up further, AQAP "probably will grow stronger." U.S. officials said they also expect Egypt to become a less enthusiastic partner, though they also cite reasons to expect a certain level of counterterrorism cooperation to endure.
Omar Suleiman, named by Hosni Mubarak as his vice president in the waning days of the regime, was for years one of the CIA's closest allies in the Middle East. As head of Egypt's intelligence service, Suleiman signed off on an array of secret programs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including Egypt's involvement in the "rendition" of terrorism suspects who subsequently claimed they were tortured after being delivered to Egyptian custody by the CIA.
Suleiman left the government along with Mubarak, and his abrupt departure could hamper counterterrorism efforts across North Africa and the Middle East.
"Two months ago, Suleiman and his Yemeni counterpart and Musa Kusa all had al-Qaeda at the top of their agenda list," Riedel said. "Now their to-do lists are very different."
Kusa was formerly head of the foreign intelligence service in Libya, a job in which he was accused of cmasterminding terrorist plots even while cracking down on groups aligned with al-Qaeda. Libyans have traditionally had disproportionately prominent roles in al-Qaeda's leadership ranks.
U.S. officials said they have cultivated relationships with other senior officials in Egypt's intelligence services and military who are expected to stay in place. They also stressed that the United States is less dependent on Egypt than it was in the years immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
That is in part because al-Qaeda's composition has changed. Egyptians once dominated the organization's leadership, but there is now only one native Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri
, in al-Qaeda's upper ranks.
More broadly, U.S. officials are convinced that the uprisings - and the prospect that more democratic and representative governments could emerge - will do significant damage to al-Qaeda's appeal. The mass protests "have the clear potential of being really bad for al-Qaeda," the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "They show the Arab world: Look what we can do without using suicide bombers, without doing anything in the name of Islam."
It is harder to see a silver lining in the rapidly deteriorating U.S. relationship with Pakistan, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and much of the organization is based. In December, U.S. officials accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) of intentionally exposing the identity
of the CIA's top operative in the country, forcing the agency to remove him.
The two governments are now engaged in a high-stakes standoff over the fate of a CIA security contractor
, Raymond Davis, who was arrested on Jan. 27 after fatally shooting two Pakistani men he said were trying to rob him at a traffic signal in Lahore. Pakistan has threatened to prosecute Davis on murder charges, ignoring U.S. assertions that he is protected by diplomatic immunity.
The CIA has dramatically reduced the number of drone strikes it has carried out since Davis's arrest, perhaps seeking to avoid further provoking anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan.
CIA spokesman George Little said that counterterrorism work has continued despite the frictions. "The agency's ties to ISI have been strong over the years, and when there are issues to sort out, we work through them," he said.
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