SANAA, YEMEN - The populist uprising in Yemen, and the heavy-handed response of the government and its loyalists, has deepened instability that al-Qaeda's branch here could exploit to stage more attacks against the United States, U.S. officials say.
But the unrest could also prove problematic for the terrorist group: Yemen's protesters are demanding democratic freedoms, not the Islamic caliphate al-Qaeda seeks to create in this Middle Eastern nation and elsewhere.
Such calls for democracy would make it harder for al-Qaeda to claim it has popular sentiments on its side, and would also give the disaffected a peaceful way to air their grievances without fear of persecution.
"If we change the system, if we have a real government, I am sure we won't have al-Qaeda or terrorism anymore," said Mohsin Bin Farid, secretary general of the opposition party, League of the Sons of Yemen.
Across the Arab world, U.S.-backed autocrats who have played vital roles in combating terrorism are under siege by populist revolts, raising concerns that changes in leadership could disrupt efforts by the United States and its allies to prevent al-Qaeda's growth.
But there are also indications that al-Qaeda itself is concerned about the potential downside of the democratic freedoms being unleashed by protests across the region. Populations repressed by U.S.-backed regimes have long provided a pipeline for radicalization, recruitment and financing for al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
On Friday, the terrorism network's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in a taped message to the Egyptian people that their nation's rule had long "deviated from Islam" and warned that democracy "can only be nonreligious."
And last week, the most recent issue of Sada al-Malahim, an online magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, called for the Tunisian people to implement "God's law" and said that democracy was the way to hell, according to a translation posted on Waq-al-Waq, a blog written by Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen based at Princeton University.
"There is something momentous unfolding in the region and al-Qaeda is not an actor in it. They feel left out," said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Even the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations, are calling for democracy . . . It's a problem for al-Qaeda that these protest movements are predominantly secular."
After Pakistan and Afghanistan, nowhere is the future of al-Qaeda of more concern for the United States than in Yemen. Of all the embattled Arab leaders, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 32 years, is one of Washington's most vital partners in fighting terrorism. Last year, the United States gave Yemen $300 million in military and development aid to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the network's most ambitious affiliate.
The group, often referred to by its acronym, AQAP, has thrived in Yemen's mountainous terrain, operating under the cloak of sympathetic tribes and feeding off the nation's instability.
In southern Yemen, its main stronghold, AQAP has exploited deep-rooted resentment against Saleh and his government to gain recruits and support. Despite U.S. funding, the government has been stretched thin in its fight against al-Qaeda, dealing with multiple emergencies, including a northern rebellion, a secessionist movement in the south and immense poverty.
AQAP has become a major national security concern after it was linked to a series of near-miss attacks against the United States, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and parcel bombs that ended up on cargo planes bound for the United States.
U.S. officials are also concerned about Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical Yemeni-American cleric linked to those two plots as well as the Fort Hood shooting rampage in 2009. They say he is a top AQAP leader; the United States has ordered his assassination. Aulaqi is believed to be hiding in southeastern Yemen, protected by his tribe.
Michael Leiter, the Obama administration's top counter-terrorism official, told Congress two weeks ago that he considers AQAP and Aulaqi "probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland."
U.S. officials said they were unsure how threatening the protests are to Saleh and his government and whether any change in leadership would disrupt a major U.S. buildup of intelligence and military assets, including drones, to target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But they are watching closely to see whether Yemen's counter-terrorism campaign is diverted by the unrest.
"We are absolutely concerned that AQAP is looking for ways to exploit the protests," a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In interviews, Yemeni officials have indicated that efforts to quell the popular uprisings have taken much greater precedence over fighting al-Qaeda.
"The government and security forces are focused on the political problems because we don't want what happened in Egypt and Tunisia to happen here," said Sultan Al-Barakani, a top ruling party official. "This could allow al-Qaeda to grow stronger. . . . If the security forces are burdened or the government is weakened or falls, this is the first step for al-Qaeda to take over the country."
But Yemen's opposition dismisses such comments as those of a besieged government trying to use the specter of al-Qaeda to generate more support from the United States and to raise doubts about supporting their calls for democracy.
"The government is exaggerating the threat of al-Qaeda," said Mohammed Qahtan, a senior leader in Islah, the nation's largest and most powerful Islamist opposition party. "There are two reasons for this: The government's rule is weak, and they want to get more and more money and backing from the United States."
Over the past year, the CIA and U.S. special operations forces have expanded their presence in Yemen as part of a secret collaboration with Saleh and his government, creating an intelligence network to dismantle AQAP's leadership.
But since the failed Christmas Day plot, the group has grown more assertive and ambitious, say government officials, opposition activists, diplomats and analysts.
In addition to the parcel bomb plot, AQAP launched Inspire, an English-language jihadist magazine whose goal is to breed a new generation of terrorists in Western nations. Since August, AQAP attacks against Yemeni security forces have increased dramatically, according to Western diplomats. In April, a suicide bomber targeted the British ambassador, who survived the attack. And Aulaqi has continued to post videos and messages online to inspire his legions of followers.
"2010 was the year of al-Qaeda," said Said Obaid, a terrorism analyst who wrote a book about AQAP. "They have gotten stronger."
By his own account, he added, there were more than 150 AQAP attacks last year, mostly against Yemeni security forces. In 2009, there were about 20, he said. On Saturday, senior military officials escaped an assassination attempt by suspected al-Qaeda militants in Abyan, a southern province and al-Qaeda stronghold, according to local news reports.
James R. Clapper Jr., the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned in testimony before Congress on Thursday that unless there are "more effective and sustained activities" to disrupt AQAP, the group "probably will grow stronger."
"Saleh is facing some profound challenges," Clapper said.
AQAP has gained strength in part due to a deepening resentment among southerners, who have long accused Saleh's northerner-ruled government of denying them resources, government jobs and basic services such as electricity. Over the past year, the security forces have clamped down hard on southern villages and towns it suspects of harboring al-Qaeda militants. But tribal leaders say they have targeted many people who have no links to the group.
"People don't believe in al-Qaeda's ideology. They support al-Qaeda because they are against the government," said Abdullah Hassan al-Jufri, a tribal leader in Abyan. "If Saleh steps down, of course the people will turn against al-Qaeda."
With its abundance of weapons and tribal rivalries, there is fear that Yemen could easily fall into civil war, spawning even more instability. Already, the unrest has spread to two major southern cities, Taiz and Aden, where violent, at times deadly, clashes between protesters and security forces have been erupting daily; police have killed protesters, breeding even more resentment against Saleh.
Some U.S. lawmakers and regional analysts are calling for the United States to not focus exclusively on counter-terrorism in Yemen. Increasing pressure on AQAP, they say, also requires pressing Saleh and his government to meet the needs of Yemenis, especially their demands for more freedoms.
"If countries like Yemen fail to do this, transitions could create a less favorable outcome for their people, for the region, and for the United States," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week.
Staff writers Peter Finn and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.