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Is Anwar al-Awlaki's importance to Al Qaeda overstated?

Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been referred to as an Al Qaeda leader, strategist, or ideologue – and now, as a successor to Osama bin Laden.

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Yemen, one of the most conservative countries in the Islamic world, has a rugged landscape, weak central government, and devastating poverty that have combined to create fertile ground for extremist ideology.

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On May 5, drone strikes in the southern province of Shabwa, a suspected haven of Al Qaeda militants, killed two brothers alleged to be mid-level operatives in Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, US and Yemeni officials confirmed that the strike, the first carried out by US drones in Yemen since 2002, was an attempt to assassinate Awlaki.

Protesters upset by West's shift in focus to Al Qaeda

The renewed focus on Yemeni extremism following Bin Laden’s death has been considered a blow to demonstrators calling for the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The president, who has been in power for 32 years, was on the brink of tendering his resignation under a Gulf-sponsored initiative that would have seen him transfer power in 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. But the mercurial leader now appears to have backed out of the deal.

Protesters fear that renewed international attention to the Al Qaeda threat could provide a lifeline to Mr. Saleh, one of Washington's key counterterrorism allies.

The May 5 US drone strikes, they say, are indicative of America’s continued reliance on Saleh, despite the fact that at least some in Washington and many in Sanaa believe he has exaggerated the threat posed by AQAP to curry favor and funding from the West.

“The threat of Al Qaeda is much smaller than is being projected right now,” says Hamza Alshargabi, a prominent Yemeni activist and blogger. “There are violent elements in every society, including the US. The difference is that our people get more press.”

Analysts estimate that AQAP is composed of a core group of several hundred members among the country's 24 million people.

In recent weeks, Saleh has sought to highlight the threat posed by Al Qaeda within the country, often associating the extremist group with the official opposition parties and demonstrators. That AQAP, and Awlaki specifically, have publicly lauded efforts to topple Yemen’s regime, has raised concern among Western policymakers wondering what comes next after Saleh.

Already dangerously fragile, Yemen has been further destabilized by months of political turmoil that have not only shifted attention away from domestic extremism, but may be creating opportunities for extremist groups like AQAP to increase their operations.

“The US has to realize that in the long run, supporting President Saleh stepping down sooner rather than later is in its best interest when it comes to counterterrorism,” says Mr. Johnsen. “As the security situation in Yemen deteriorates, as the economy continues to crumble, the question now has to become what does Yemen look like if President Saleh stays in power?”

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