Will Yemen protests boost Al Qaeda?
Yemen protesters say Saleh has overstated the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to get US aid. But the group stands to benefit from major upheaval.
Before protests broke out in Yemen, the greatest US concern here was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber and other international terrorist attacks.Skip to next paragraph
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If President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime were to collapse, the reasoning went, the US would lose a key ally in the fight to contain AQAP – potentially just as the country became more fragmented and difficult to control.
As upheaval of that magnitude appears increasingly near – Mr. Saleh is reportedly in talks to arrange a transfer of power – opposition leaders and protesters dismiss any AQAP threat. They say the group is a creation of Saleh designed to secure hundreds of millions in US aid for his impoverished country. Once Saleh disappears, they say, so will AQAP.
But while Saleh has been known to harness other Salafist militant groups for his advantage, AQAP has developed a momentum of its own. If Yemen’s weak economic position and lack of development persist even after Saleh steps down, AQAP could take advantage of popular discontent and any resulting tumult.
“There are ways in which Saleh has exploited the existence of AQAP in the country, but the organization itself exists independently of the president,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey. “If the government that comes next in Yemen is unable to deal with the harsh economic realities and some of the demands of the protesters, Al Qaeda will be in a good position to capitalize.”
US ambassador: 'The instability is helpful to Al Qaeda'
Yemen’s protest movement began in January and gathered momentum after former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by mass demonstrations. Since then, it has gradually broadened to include a broad swath of Yemen’s population, all united by one demand: Leave.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were driven in no small part by growing, educated middle classes that rejected Islamist extremism in favor of mass peaceful protests. But Yemen doesn’t have much that resembles a middle class: some 40 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. In addition, there are 55 guns per 100 people – a ratio second only to the US.
In regions where rates of poverty and arms intersect at the highest levels, like the restive northern provinces of Al Jawf and Marib and southern regions such as Abyan and Shabwa, AQAP has proven a strong recruiter.
Thus as revolutionary fervor and the prospect of widespread violence increase, many see a growing opportunity for AQAP – with potentially dire consequences.
On March 18, the protest death toll doubled in one day when government loyalists fired on demonstrators from rooftops after Friday prayers, prompting the resignation of at least six Yemeni diplomats abroad and several top military commanders, including Saleh’s half-brother, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.