Throughout Yemen's political crisis, the West's chief concern has been that spreading chaos in the country will offer al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) an opportunity to expand its operations. Now that Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is in Saudi Arabia for emergency medical treatment, leaving the country in uncertain hands, these worries have only become more urgent. Saleh has often argued that any political vacuum that would follow his rule could prove dangerously hospitable to al Qaeda and similar groups -- a warning that, in reality, is based far more on political posturing than on a real assessment of the terrorist threat.
For years now, Saleh has used the specter of al Qaeda to drum up political and financial support, mainly from the United States and Saudi Arabia. This strategy first took shape in November 2005, when he traveled to Washington to meet then U.S. President George W. Bush. Saleh expected his American hosts to congratulate him for eradicating the al Qaeda cells responsible for attacks on the U.S.S. Cole and the M.V. Limburg; instead, he was castigated for failing to achieve political and economic reforms. As he saw it, the danger of al Qaeda was the sole reason behind U.S. support for Yemen.
Three months later, the terrorist threat in Yemen took on new life when 23 experienced jihadis escaped from a high-security prison in Sana'a. A number of attacks on high-profile targets followed, mostly against Western tourists -- international oil workers in Marib and Hadhramaut in September 2006 and Spanish tourists at Marib in July 2007. Western diplomats were also targeted, most notably those at the U.S. Embassy, which came under a complex assault in September 2008. The attackers clearly wanted to damage Yemen's reputation and reduce tourism and oil revenues. Saleh, however, also stood to benefit from al Qaeda's rise: his less assertive response to terrorism than previously -- compared to, for example, his crackdown against those responsible for the Cole bombing -- may have