Al Qaeda in Yemen has long acted independently from Osama bin Laden's organization, but Yemen's president may emphasize the threat it poses in order to retain power.
By Erik Stier, Correspondent / May 2, 2011
The death of Osama bin Laden in a US-led raid this morning has put a fresh spotlight on one of Al Qaeda's most prominent offshoots, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Even as the US was tipped off to bin Laden's whereabouts in August last year, senior Obama administration officials already saw the Yemeni branch as a greater threat than Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Washington Post reported at the time.
Yemen's weak central governance, rugged terrain, and widespread poverty have allowed militants to operate fairly freely despite a recent string of airstrikes and raids by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government, which has increasingly been cooperating with US counterterrorism operations.
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But now, with Mr. Saleh's regime's pushed to the brink of collapse, Yemen is in a poor position to rein in extremist activity – including the sort of retaliatory attacks against which the US is seeking to guard its citizens.
"There is no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us," warned President Barack Obama in a speech last night. "We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
AQAP distinct from bin Laden's organization
It was an attack staged off the coast of Aden, Yemen’s southern port city, that first drew significant international attention to bin Laden’s organization. Nearly a year before the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda militants carried out a suicide operation against the American naval destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 American officers.
More recently, AQAP has targeted American soil twice in as many years. Both the failed parcel bomb plot of 2010 and the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot originated in Yemen, where the group is now led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who for years acted as secretary to bin Laden in Afghanistan.
But today AQAP operates independently of bin Laden's organization and thus his death is unlikely to have any significant impact on the Yemeni offshoot, says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University.
“Nasir al-Wuhayshi is running AQAP as a parallel organization, in that Wahishi has command and control of people who swear an oath of allegiance to him, in much the same way that they used to for Osama bin Laden,” says Mr. Johnsen. “In terms of the day-to-day operations, I don't see it having a very big impact.”
Muted response in bin Laden's ancestral homeland
Response to the terrorist leader’s death has been remarkably muted in Yemen, bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, which has been gripped by intensifying protests for the past three months.
“The death of Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean anything to us,” said Hossam Logham, a protester in Sanaa’s Change Square. “It’s not going to have an effect on Yemeni people and it won’t affect Al Qaeda in Yemen.”
Many on the streets of the capital were not even aware of the American raid that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Saleh could use Al Qaeda threat to stay in power
But while the end of the US’s 10-year manhunt for bin Laden may not be eliciting a strong response from the Yemeni street, some believe that the news will create opportunities for the country’s embattled president to retain the office he has held for 32 years.
The US has cultivated Saleh as an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda, more than doubling its military aid to $150 million last year. The president recently warned America that his departure would mean gains for the terrorist group.
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“Al-Qaeda are moving inside the [protest] camps and this is very dangerous," Saleh said in a BBC interview. "Why is the West not looking at this destructive work and its dangerous implications for the future?"
Demonstrators claim that Saleh has for years exaggerated the threat AQAP poses in order to gain political benefits. Now, as Saleh appears to have backed out of a Gulf-sponsored initiative that would see him exchange power for immunity, he may be looking to capitalize on bin Laden’s death.
“Al Qaeda in Yemen has always been a political tool,” says Abdulla Yahya Jarallah, a protester in Sanaa. “It wouldn’t be a surprise if he builds up the Al Qaeda threat now.”