Unrest in Yemen Could Benefit AQAP

Originally published in The Corner: National Review Online
March 31, 2011

Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released the fifth issue of its English-language magazine, Inspire, on jihadist forums this week. The recent issue, “The Tsunami of Change,” dedicates significant space to the spreading political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The underlying theme of previous issues — encouraging individuals to attack Western targets — is carried over into the new issue. The existence of AQAP in Yemen makes the recent instability in that country unique in the broader wave of unrest across the Middle East.

The protests throughout Yemen are occurring at a time when AQAP is al-Qaeda’s most active franchise. AQAP has launched two attacks on the U.S. homeland since late 2009. The unrest in Yemen could benefit AQAP in two immediate ways: The unrest creates more space for AQAP’s activities and increases AQAP’s chances of evading counterterrorism operations. In the past week, an Islamic emirate has been declared in Abyan governorate while Ali Abdullah Saleh’s historically weak regime appeared to have lost further control over territory. There are already indications that AQAP is planning another attack and that the plot may be more concrete than the information typically picked up from terrorist chatter.

Saleh’s regime in Yemen is unstable as protracted negotiations over Yemen’s political future proceed indecisively. The specter of state collapse or fragmentation has become very real. Secretary of Defense Gates said this past weekend that “if [Saleh’s] government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen.” There are several key issues that need to be addressed in order to re-evaluate U.S. policy in Yemen and think ahead about potential challenges; one of which is how the perception of tacit U.S. support for an increasingly illegitimate Saleh regime will impact any future U.S. relationship with Yemen.

AEI’s Critical Threats Project is following the situation in Yemen closely and will be providing updates on rapid developments there.