The Pentagon and the CIA, which have steadily deployed more men and equipment to Yemen, including armed drones, will have to forge fresh relationships with whatever new leadership emerges in Yemen. And some in the opposition to Saleh have expressed skepticism about even the existence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), describing the terrorist group that has come to preoccupy Washington in recent years as a myth.
Officials in the United States and elsewhere fear that the al-Qaeda group will exploit the turmoil in Yemen to solidify its base and launch fresh attacks.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials said, Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, including special forces units that the U.S. has helped fund and train, have been sent back to their barracks or diverted from the pursuit of AQAP militants.
Some observers said that if the violence continues, the chaos might put pressure on the United States to act unilaterally, including expanding the use of armed drones.
Saleh’s departure to seek medical treatment for wounds suffered in an attack triggered celebrations Sunday in Sanaa, the capital, where jubilant residents filled the streets. But there was continued violence in the southern city of Taiz, with Yemeni security forces fighting gunmen.
AQAP emerged in the span of several years as a major terrorism threat by exploiting lawless spaces in Yemen and establishing itself as an innovative and influential al-Qaeda node. More than any other regional affiliate, AQAP has demonstrated a commitment to launching attacks against the United States, using the Internet to reach Western recruits and embracing the idea that even failed attacks can have a profound impact, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.
The terrorist group was behind the attempt to bring down a commercial flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the targeting last year of cargo jets heading to the United States.
“We would be shortsighted to think this doesn’t pose short-term national security concerns,” said Frank J. Cilluffo, a former White House official who leads the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The likelihood is that [AQAP operatives] will be raising their heads.” But he said that could provide an opportunity for the United States to launch strikes against them.
April Alley, the senior Arabian Peninsula analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that with Saleh gone, there is a real opportunity to initiate a peaceful transition to elections but that Yemen remains “quite precarious.”