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How Osama Bin Laden's death will affect Al Qaeda in Yemen

Al Qaeda in Yemen has long acted independently from Osama bin Laden's organization, but Yemen's president may emphasize the threat it poses in order to retain power.

By Erik StierCorrespondent / May 2, 2011

Antigovernment protesters watch a television broadcasting a report about the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in a tent at the site of a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Monday, May 2. Osama bin Laden was killed in a US assault on his Pakistani compound on Monday, then quickly buried at sea, in a dramatic end to the long manhunt for the Al Qaeda leader who had become the most powerful symbol of global terrorism.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Sanaa, Yemen

The death of Osama bin Laden in a US-led raid this morning has put a fresh spotlight on one of Al Qaeda's most prominent offshoots, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

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Even as the US was tipped off to bin Laden's whereabouts in August last year, senior Obama administration officials already saw the Yemeni branch as a greater threat than Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Washington Post reported at the time.

Yemen's weak central governance, rugged terrain, and widespread poverty have allowed militants to operate fairly freely despite a recent string of airstrikes and raids by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government, which has increasingly been cooperating with US counterterrorism operations.

But now, with Mr. Saleh's regime's pushed to the brink of collapse, Yemen is in a poor position to rein in extremist activity – including the sort of retaliatory attacks against which the US is seeking to guard its citizens.

"There is no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us," warned President Barack Obama in a speech last night. "We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

AQAP distinct from bin Laden's organization

It was an attack staged off the coast of Aden, Yemen’s southern port city, that first drew significant international attention to bin Laden’s organization. Nearly a year before the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda militants carried out a suicide operation against the American naval destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 American officers.

More recently, AQAP has targeted American soil twice in as many years. Both the failed parcel bomb plot of 2010 and the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot originated in Yemen, where the group is now led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who for years acted as secretary to bin Laden in Afghanistan.

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