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Trouble in Yemen Could Give Al-Qaida New Opening

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks at a pro-regime rally in the capital, Sanaa, on April 1. U.S. counterterrorism officials fear that Saleh's ouster could provide a boost to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Mohamed Huwais
AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks at a pro-regime rally in the capital, Sanaa, on April 1. U.S. counterterrorism officials fear that Saleh's ouster could provide a boost to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The protests in Yemen have counterterrorism officials in this country particularly worried. That's because Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida.

Several hundred fighters who are known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, are based in Yemen. The group, which was behind the Christmas Day bombing attempt on Northwest Flight 253, also sent printer-cartridge bombs to the U.S. on cargo planes last fall. (Saudi intelligence revealed the plot to U.S. officials before the bombs went off.)

AQAP's chief propagandist is Anwar al-Awlaki, the Internet imam who has been linked to a number of terrorist plots against the U.S. and Europe, including the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, two years ago. U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told Congress last month that AQAP is "increasingly devoted" to attacking the United States.

U.S. Ally Under Pressure

Saleh has been a key player in the battle against al-Qaida's arm in his country. He has allowed the U.S. to set up a joint military command center in Yemen that is almost exclusively focused on AQAP. He has allowed the Americans to set up a training program aimed at teaching Yemenis to fight terrorism. Hundreds of local law enforcement personnel there have been going through the training.

Saleh has also provided cover for U.S. counterterrorism operations in his country. When the WikiLeaks documents were released last year, one of the most explosive revelations was in a cable involving the relationship between Saleh and the Americans. In the leaked document, Saleh tells U.S. diplomats that he'd continue to say publicly that U.S. attacks on militants in Yemen were conducted by his troops and not theirs. "We'll say the bombs are ours, not yours," he is quoted as saying.

Now, intelligence sources say, Saleh's priorities have changed. He is all about staying in power. Among other things, he has called counterterrorism squads back to Sanaa to protect him in the capital. That means teams that used to be chasing al-Qaida in southern Yemen are now up north, guarding the president, giving the terrorist group a lot more room to operate.

Restarting Drone Attacks

U.S. officials say they are thinking about resurrecting a Predator drone program in Yemen to target the suspected terrorists the Yemeni soldiers are no longer tracking. The U.S. had been killing suspected al-Qaida members in Yemen with missile strikes until last May. That's when a U.S. strike accidentally killed a Yemeni deputy governor who was, allegedly, meeting with al-Qaida militants in south Yemen. (AQAP is thought to be based in the southern part of the country.)

There was so much fallout from that attack, U.S.-led operations in Yemen basically came to a standstill. That has meant that for the past year, al-Qaida has had more room to plan attacks. Now that there are reports of more possible terrorist attacks, it makes sense for the U.S. to be looking at bringing the predators back.

The big debate inside Yemen is whether the president there will go out peacefully, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, or fight tooth and nail like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. No one knows. But counterterrorism officials say that if Saleh does indeed fall and Yemen dissolves into chaos, that could be bad news for the fight against terrorism.

One of the scenarios they are worrying about: With Somalia already teetering between a transitional government and hardcore Islamists, having Yemen in the same precarious situation could hand al-Qaida control of hundreds of miles of territory.

One official says what the U.S. is facing in Yemen is nothing but bad options. If Saleh stays, there will be increasingly violent protests. If he goes, there could be anarchy or, another possibility, a government that doesn't want to be helpful in hunting down al-Qaida terrorists. That's why officials are watching what is going on there so closely.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.