4:28pm

Wed March 2, 2011
Middle East

Yemen Unrest A Worry For Counterterrorism Experts

Ask counterterrorism experts what country in the Arab world worries them most and they say — hands down — that it is Yemen.

"I would put Yemen at the top of the list in part because there is so much direct concern about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] trying to target and attack the United States," says Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for terrorism. "The reality is that AQAP is a viable network and group. Even if the numbers aren't in the thousands, just a few hundred of those types with the right kind of leadership training and inspiration can do quite a bit of damage."

Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen has been one of the terrorist group's most active affiliates. It is home to radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the English speaking-imam who has been accused of inspiring and directing young jihadists to attack the West.

Al-Qaida's Yemen branch was behind the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner two years ago. Last fall, the group tried to send package bombs to the U.S. on cargo planes.

Both plots failed, but together they provide a glimpse of how determined the group is to strike the U.S.

American counterterrorism officials have made clear that they consider al-Qaida in Yemen and Awlaki to be the two most significant risks to the U.S.

That's why unrest in Yemen makes the situation even more complicated.

An Al-Qaida Safe Haven?

The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, told Congress last month that he was concerned because Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is facing challenges from all sides.

"He has successionists in his country, the presence of al-Qaida and he's another leader who has been in place a long time," Clapper says.

He and other U.S. officials have been tiptoeing around the subject of just how closely Saleh has been working with the U.S. to fight terrorists in his country. The Obama administration gave the Saleh government $155 million in military aid to fight al-Qaida last year — and that figure is expected to be stepped up this year.

Zarate says the U.S. government can't afford not to.

"I think it is already assumed that Yemen provides a safe haven, at a minimum, for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," he says. "AQAP isn't necessarily walking around the streets of Sanaa or Aden, but they have a presence in the mountains and the deserts where al-Qaida has been in the past."

That's part of the reason the CIA and U.S. Special Forces expanded their presence in Yemen late last year. It was part of a secret collaboration with the Saleh government.

State Department cables released by WikiLeaks revealed the extent of the cooperation. In one cable, Saleh is quoted as saying he would keep claiming attacks on al-Qaida's arm in Yemen were the work of his forces, not the Americans.

The release of those cables gave protesters in Yemen another reason to rally against their president.

Taking Advantage Of Instability

Over the weekend, al-Qaida's arm in Yemen provided the first outward indication that it is trying to take advantage of the instability there. One of its leaders, a former Guantanamo detainee named Ibrahim Rubaish, released an audiotape. He is seen as AQAP's chief theologian.

In the 10-minute tape, he urged Muslims not just to protest against Arab rulers but to go a step further and demand governments based on Islamic law. Toppling tyrants is fine, he says, but the most important thing is to choose the right people to replace them. In his view, the right people would be strict Islamists.

Saleh has been trying to negotiate with protesters in order to stay in power. He's offered to put together a unity government and work harder to create jobs.

With each passing day, the protests against him grown larger. Officials say even if Saleh does fall, they don't think that al-Qaida will suddenly take over in Yemen. The terrorist group isn't popular with local Yemenis and is seen as ruthless.

Instead, the concern is that the group will be able to use the unrest to get more room to operate, which could allow them to launch more attacks against the U.S. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.