Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh survived a rocket attack on the presidential palace in Sana'a today, and he is reportedly planning to address the country sometime soon. This latest episode is more evidence that the country where the most active al Qaeda franchise has found sanctuary is sliding toward civil war. Countrywide protests have devolved into the beginnings of a broader armed conflict as defected military units join forces with tribal forces to fight the government. Saleh has refused to step down, despite internal and international pressure to do so. The unrest has given al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) more freedom to operate within the country in expanded safe havens.
The opposition movement in Yemen has gained momentum since late January. Established anti-government movements such as the Southern Movement and the al Houthis were bolstered by the successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and mobilized their networks to stand in solidarity with the peaceful youth movement. Saleh made early concessions to the opposition, including a promise that he would not run for another term in 2013. Yemen's opposition, however, called for Saleh to resign. A crackdown on a peaceful protest in Sana'a on March 18 spurred the defection of key regime supporters, who joined the call for a regime change.
Attempts to broker a negotiated transition of power have failed and conflict is expanding. Saleh has reneged on three commitments to sign a transition deal; each time adding a new condition. One deal, negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between March and mid-May, was favorable toward the regime. Known as the "30-60" transition agreement, Saleh was given thirty days to step down with presidential elections to be conducted sixty days following Saleh's resignation. Even as Saleh and his relatives were promised immunity from prosecution, he proved to be the impasse; members of the opposition as well as members of the ruling party had already signed the transition deal when he refused for the third time on May 22.
The failure to reach an agreement has inevitably led to more violence. On May 23, Hashid tribesmen, whose leader Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar had defected from the regime in March, clashed with Yemeni security forces in Sana'a. A mediation committee sought to negotiate a ceasefire the following day, but Yemeni security forces shelled Ahmar's house while the negotiators were still inside. The fighting quickly escalated. Tribesmen took over control of government buildings, including the Interior Ministry, and security forces deployed to Ahmar's Sana'a neighborhood. A tenuous ceasefire collapsed and it is unlikely that either side will seek to negotiate terms again soon.
The violence did not remain isolated to the confines of the capital. Shortly after clashes broke out in Sana'a, Bakil tribesmen in Nihm district, northeast of the capital, seized local military installations. The regime's response was swift: the Yemeni air force bombed the area and ground forces were sent to recapture the sites. South of the capitol, Yemeni security forces brutally cleared the central square of Taiz, a major Yemeni city. Protestors had been camped out in the city for the past few months and have now called for reinforcements from the surrounding towns to regain the square. These incidents are snapshots of what an armed conflict in Yemen could look like should the country continue on its current path.
As challenges to the regime's survival have increased, Saleh has redeployed forces to Sana'a to protect key infrastructure. These troop movements are creating a security vacuum outside the capital that anti-government groups, including al Qaeda-linked militants, have been moving to fill. And now the erosion of the government's influence in certain regions is particularly worrisome, especially to the United States since al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most operationally active al Qaeda franchise, has attacked the U.S. twice since its January 2009 founding. AQAP trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who boarded Detroit-bound Northwest Airline Flight 253 with a bomb hidden in his underwear on Christmas day in 2009. Ten months later, AQAP mailed bombs disguised as printer cartridges to a Chicago synagogue in October 2010. Yemeni-American radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is involved in the operational leadership of AQAP, has also inspired Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting spree at Fort Hood that left 13 dead and 30 wounded.
Towns in Abyan governorate--first Jaar and then the capital of Abyan, Zinjibar--have already fallen under the control of al Qaeda-linked militants. Accordingly, the more the internal conflict spreads, the more AQAP stands to gain. Even a rapid resolution of the presidential crisis in Sana'a, unlikely though that is, will not bring sufficient local pressure to bear on AQAP. Yemen's factions will continue to remain focused on their own affairs for some time, and AQAP simply does not rank that highly in their scheme of concerns. However, for U.S. policymakers it is a key issue.
Washington has never had strong ties with Saleh, but concern about al Qaeda combined with very limited American abilities to operate in Yemen have driven the U.S. to rely on him to fight terrorists, in exchange for military and foreign assistance. The success of this policy before the current crisis was questionable, but the Obama administration appears reluctant to reconsider it even in light of the collapse of the Saleh regime. The defection of some of the regime's strongest backers, including General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar and the leaders of the Hashid and Bakil tribal federations undercut the regime's support base. It is far from certain that even a decisive American political approach would have changed the situation dramatically, and Washington is certainly not in a strong position now to shape the outcome. Yemen's escalating violence, an economy on the brink of collapse, and the prospect of widespread civil war or a fragmented state may present the White House with a very dark reality--the emergence of a terrorist sanctuary on the Arabian peninsula hosting an outfit that has targeted the U.S. homeland.
Katherine Zimmerman is an analyst for AEI's Critical Threats Project.