Trouble in Yemen Could Give Al-Qaida New Opening Protesters are demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down, but U.S. counterterrorism officials say that if the president does indeed fall and Yemen dissolves into chaos, that could be bad news for the fight against terrorism.
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Trouble in Yemen Could Give Al-Qaida New Opening

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Trouble in Yemen Could Give Al-Qaida New Opening

Trouble in Yemen Could Give Al-Qaida New Opening

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Good morning Dina.

DINA TEMPLE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you just remind us why it is that Yemen is so important to counterterrorism efforts?

TEMPLE: Well, it actually just gets down to one group, al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, which is several hundred fighters who are known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. They were behind the Christmas Day bombing attempt on Northwest Flight 253. They sent those printer cartridge bombs to the U.S. on cargo planes this past fall. Their chief propagandist is that American-born Internet imam Anwar al-Awlaki that we've heard so much about. He's the one who was linked to the Fort Hood shooter. You know, this is the one group that intelligence officials say is the most dangerous of al-Qaida's arms.

INSKEEP: And you get a sense there of the dilemma for U.S. officials, I suppose. You have this president who is not considered to be a terribly nice man, but he says look, there are dangerous people in my country and I'm your friend, America, I'm your ally.

TEMPLE: You remember when the Wikileaks documents were released last year, one of the most explosive revelations that came out about that was about President Saleh. In it, he told U.S. diplomats that he'd continue to say publicly that U.S. attacks on militants in Yemen were conducted by his troops, even though Americans were really doing them. And now intelligence sources tell me that President Saleh is all about staying in power. His priorities have changed. And he's called counterterrorism squads back to Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to protect him, and that means they aren't chasing al-Qaida.

INSKEEP: Oh, well then there's a bit of news. You're basically saying that whether the government changes or not, the U.S. is already suffering a setback in its counterterrorism efforts.

TEMPLE: So essentially, for the past year, al-Qaida has, you know, had all this room to operate. And now that there are reports about more possible attacks, it makes sense that the U.S. would be looking at possibly using Predator drones again.

INSKEEP: You say more room to operate, is al-Qaida taking advantage - are they in position to take advantage of that relative vacuum?

TEMPLE: Well that's what - exactly what the concern is, is that they are taking advantage of it and that's given them room to plan, maybe recruit, get more money. It's unclear. There's a lot of what they call chatter out there, but they're not quite sure what it means.

INSKEEP: We've only got about 10 seconds here, Dina, but are U.S. officials, are they sure that whoever would replace President Saleh would not be a helpful ally? Is it possible that the next government could be just fine?

TEMPLE: Or even worse. That's what the real concern is, 'cause it's unclear who would fill that vacuum. And if it's somebody worse, that would be a huge setback for counterterrorism officials here.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, one of many correspondents covering the gigantic story of the Arab uprisings which stretch from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, all the way west to Libya, and sometimes a little beyond. We'll have the latest right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News

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