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.
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.
“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.
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.”