March 28, 2011
Quick Take: Yemen Protests Update
The political unrest in Yemen and the prospect of imminent regime change or collapse undermines the entire basis of U.S. counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The security and political situation has continued to deteriorate over the past week, increasing the likelihood of state collapse in Yemen. AQAP has seized control of strategic sites in its traditional strongholds in southern Yemen and there are indications that the group is in the midst of an active plot to attack the U.S.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lost the support of key figures within his regime on March 21, including Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar and General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar. Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar’s pronouncement that he would support the anti-government protestors led to a significant shift of parts of key tribes away from Saleh. All eight of the Ahmar brothers, who come from one of the influential northern tribes, the Hashid tribe, are now behind the protestors. Hamid al Ahmar, a powerful businessman, resigned from his position as deputy minister of youth and sports in early March and Sheikh Hussein al Ahmar, a prominent tribal figure, called for the regime to be overthrown in late February. The defection of General Ahmar, who commands the northwest division of the army, led to the defection of several other commanders within the armed forces. A few Republican Guard units, known for their loyalty to Saleh, are also rumored to have begun protecting the protestors.
Yemeni negotiators report that Saleh has backed off of a negotiated transition of power. Leading opposition figures, including General Ahmar and political and tribal representatives, along with the U.S. and U.K. ambassadors, had been in talks with the president since Thursday to transfer power peacefully. General Ahmar told the Wall Street Journal that a five-point plan had been agreed upon early Saturday, but that the talks fell apart when the opposition demanded that Saleh go into exile upon stepping down from the presidency. The settlement would have empowered a caretaker government, led by Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Mujawar, for a transitional period. Saleh and General Ahmar, under the plan, would resign from their posts. Saleh’s son and nephews would keep their positions commanding U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units.
AQAP is operating in the background of the unrest in Yemen. U.S. officials report that new intelligence on AQAP has heightened concerns about active plots to attack the U.S. Sunday, AQAP militants attacked a Ma’rib checkpoint, east of the capital, killing seven Yemeni soldiers. In the south, Islamist militants, likely including al Qaeda members, seized control of key sites including a weapons factory, Khanfar mountain, and Jaar town in Abyan. The Yemeni army’s attempt to recapture Jaar left at least one soldier dead. Thirty suspected AQAP militants seized four vehicles carrying cases of weapons from a munitions factory from nearby Batige. Though the commander of the southern army division remains loyal to the regime, divisions within Yemen’s armed forces will decrease the military’s ability to push back effectively against recent AQAP gains.
The developments in Yemen hinder effective counter-terrorism operations against AQAP. State collapse would significantly increase the challenges the U.S. faces in Yemen.
The Critical Threats Project is tracking these developments in Yemen closely as they unfold. CTP produced a briefing packet on the unrest, which will be updated daily, and has updated the Yemen dashboard.