The call for reform first heard in Tunisia and Egypt has spread throughout the Middle East. Yemen has not escaped the wave of unrest. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, however, Yemen hosts an al Qaeda franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that is determined to attack U.S. interests. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified this month that “Deterioration of governance will present serious challenges to U.S. and regional interests, including leaving AQAP better positioned to plan and carry out attacks.” This is the al Qaeda group that John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, called “the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network.” The spread of protests across Yemen should be alarming not just for what they could herald for the Yemeni government, but for how they affect counterterrorism operations against AQAP.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has governed for more than 30 years, made preemptive economic and political concessions after the January 14 ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But decades of political and economic marginalization could not be undone over the course of a few weeks. Saleh, who has managed to maintain power through the manipulation of tribal factions and blatant corruption, has not had popular support for years, and it came as no surprise that the concessions were not enough to stave off country-wide protests. The protesters do not have a unified voice, however. Some seek further reforms within the government or for Saleh to step down, and others in the south are calling for secession from the north.
The government response has been to increase the security presence in areas where major demonstrations are taking place. But Yemen doesn’t have sufficient military resources to deploy forces to all areas that are experiencing unrest, and there have been reports that civilian pro-government supporters were recruited to disperse protesters. Saleh, who has watched two Arab heads of state fall, is rightly concerned about the gravity of the situation for his own hold on power. Wednesday, Saleh said (apparently without a hint of irony) that those who seek power should use the ballot box, not chaos.
Needless to say, the battle against AQAP is now on the back burner. Security resources are focused on putting down the protests, and this bottom line is good news for al Qaeda. The group could well co-opt the protests to further its own goals. Increased unrest and a heavy-handed response by Yemen security forces would also play into AQAP’s portrayal of itself as a protector of the Yemeni tribes. Most importantly for the United States, AQAP can take advantage of the diversion of attention—both Yemeni and international—from its activities to plan operations to attack U.S. interests.
Herein lies the challenge for the Obama administration: The protesters have legitimate grievances that need to be recognized; Saleh, like most authoritarian dictators, has ignored those he hasn’t repressed. Still, the United States needs to have a strong partner in Yemen to defeat AQAP; Saleh, the United States’ only option, has been inconsistent and is now weakened by the protests. Squaring this circle isn’t going to be easy for President Obama. But square it he must.