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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.

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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.

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“Our concern is that the situation inside of the country will become more and more chaotic,” Gerald Feierstein, US ambassador to Yemen, told reporters recently. “We believe that the uncertainty and the instability is helpful to Al Qaeda.”

Why US backs counterterrorism efforts in Yemen

AQAP is the product of a 2009 merger between Saudi and Yemeni cells, some of whose members were former detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Yemeni prisons.

Building on a tradition of Al Qaeda activity in Yemen that included the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors a year before 9/11, the group has developed a reputation as one of the most sophisticated extremist groups in the region – with an aim, if not a proven capacity, to launch attacks on US soil.

“Al Qaeda in Yemen is different from every other Al Qaeda franchise in the world,” says Saeed Obaid al-Jimhi, a Yemeni analyst specializing in Al Qaeda. “There is none other like it in terms of its reach and range of targets.”

Shortly after the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt, the US military announced a doubling in counterterrorism aid to $150 million. At the time, Gen. David Petraeus said the Yemeni government had shown “significant commitment” to fighting AQAP in recent months, when Yemen – with US help – had launched strikes on dozens of suspected militants.

Concerns remain, however, that Saleh has funneled some of the funding to more pressing domestic priorities, including the suppression of a Houthi rebellion in the north and separatists in the south.

AQAP largely silent on protests

Suspected AQAP militants have continued to carry out missions against Yemeni security officials in the provinces of Abyan, Shabwa, and Marib since protests began. But the group has done little to capitalize on the momentum of the protest movement so far.

The prolific organization, which puts out a bimonthly Arabic publication and a quarterly English magazine, has only issued two statements on the topic of Arab revolutions, neither of which dealt directly with Yemen.

Though both statements broadly encouraged revolt, AQAP has advocated different goals from protest movements – notably the establishment of sharia, or Islamic law.

Such messages are unpopular with many protesters, who are more focused on economic and political reform.

“We want to bring down this regime and replace it with a civilian-led democracy, not a religious council, and not military rule,” says Ibrahim Abdullah, a protester in Sanaa’s Tagheer Square.

But AQAP’s interest – and advantage – may be not so much in the political arena as in a deterioration of order in Yemen.

“The problem today is political. Al Qaeda will try to benefit, but they are not a political organization,” says Mr. Jimhi. “The demonstrations that are taking place right now will have an effect on AQAP, but not an immediate one.”

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