STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now in Yemen, the unknown is what happens to the country's president as well as what happens after he goes, if he does. His name is Ali Abdullah Saleh and he's been in charge in Yemen since 1978. Now protesters are calling for him to step down. He's been a key American ally in counterterrorism, and U.S. officials worry about what happens if he falls. We're going to talk about that with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who's on the line.
Good morning Dina.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Would you just remind us why it is that Yemen is so important to counterterrorism efforts?
TEMPLE-RASTON: 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-RASTON: Exactly. And, you know, the Americans are sort of caught between a rock and a hard place. The White House has called for meaningful political change in Yemen, but they still want all this terrorism help. The U.S. and the Yemenis have a military command center in Yemen, and that center is almost completely focused on al-Qaida. And President Saleh has also provided a lot of cover for the U.S. on these counterterrorism operations.
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-RASTON: Exactly. I mean the one big thing we're hearing is that the U.S. is thinking about resurrecting the Predator drone program in Yemen. I mean the U.S. has been targeting suspected terrorists in Yemen with missile strikes. And basically, that's actually been on hold since last May when a U.S. strike accidentally killed a deputy governor who was meeting with al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen. And there's been so much fallout from that attack that the U.S.-led operations in Yemen have basically come to a standstill.
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-RASTON: 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-RASTON: 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-RASTON: 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
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.