Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose threats have prompted the closure of Western embassies throughout the Arab world this week, is enjoying a resurgence in Yemen despite U.S. training of Yemeni troops and American airstrikes against the terrorist network.
On Tuesday, the U.S. conducted its fourth drone strike in 10 days in Yemen, killing four suspected terrorists, and evacuated personnel from its embassy in Sana’a, the capital. Great Britain on Monday had urged all of its citizens to leave Yemen, and the U.S. followed suit Tuesday.
The Yemeni government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, criticized the evacuation as a sign of weakness in the face of terroristic threats.
“The evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists,” the Sana’a government said, adding that it “undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”
That cooperation has included a quadrupling of the number of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab nations. The U.S. conducted 42 airstrikes in Yemen in 2012, compared to 10 in 2011, and the total 75 U.S. drone attacks since 2002 have killed about 375 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters, according to The Long War Journal. The U.S. has conducted 16 airstrikes in Yemen this year.
“The al Qaeda presence in Yemen is resurgent and resilient,” said Daniel R. Green, a Yemen analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Drone strikes are a useful tactic for degrading al Qaeda’s operational capabilities, but they’re not a fundamental solution to address al Qaeda’s strength in Yemen.”
Mr. Green says the Yemeni terrorist network has about 2,500 fighters, including hundreds of “hard-core” operatives.
About two-thirds of last year’s U.S. airstrikes were conducted in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa, where al Qaeda boasts training camps. This year, almost every U.S. drone attack has been in Shabwa, according to The Long War Journal.
“While the United States is scratching names off its most-wanted list, AQAP the organization continues to grow and it continues to prove itself capable of projecting the type of power that sends the United States into panic mode,” Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University, wrote in Foreign Policy. “After this terrorism alert that has sent America’s entire diplomatic and intelligence operatives in nearly two dozen countries scrambling, it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that’s more sustainable — and more sensible too.”
President Obama said during his re-election campaign that al Qaeda had been greatly weakened, and the State Department repeated that message Tuesday even as it evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and kept closed about a dozen other diplomatic facilities in the region.
“We point to the successes and the president pointed to the successes, including the decimation of the ‘core’ of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But we remain concerned about the threat from affiliates, and that’s been our consistent viewpoint,” State Department deputy press secretary Marie Harf said Tuesday.
Analysts, however, said the distinction between “core” al Qaeda and its affiliates is mattering less.
“Operationally, financially, from a leadership perspective, I think Yemen is the new headquarters of al Qaeda,” Mr. Green said. “Success is measured by whether our Americans are being protected or not, and when you have 21 embassies drawing down, that says a lot about whether we’re doing well. And when your own embassy in Yemen has to draw down to basically where it’s just essential personnel, it shows that it is not working as well as people had hoped.”
The recent closures of Western diplomatic outposts were prompted by intercepted communications in which “core” al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri ordered AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former Osama bin Laden aide, to undertake an attack.
• Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.