By Ahmed Al-haj, for Associated Press
Al-Qaida’s branch remains a powerful threat in this deeply unstable nation, even after a U.S. drone strike that eliminated three of its key figures. Its military leadership remains intact and is only growing stronger amid months of political turmoil tearing Yemen apart.
As the president struggles to keep power, Islamic militants have taken advantage of the government’s crumbling control to take over several cities in the south, raising the danger they can establish a permanent stronghold. On Saturday, militants holding Zinjibar, a southern provincial capital, battled government forces in fighting that killed at least 28 soldiers and militants.
Yemen is considered a crucial battleground with the terror network. The impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula is on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and the oil-producing nations of the Gulf and lies on strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal. But order has crumbled as President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces more than seven months of protests demanding an end to his 33-year authoritarian rule, and his loyalists have battled with military units and tribal fighters who sided with the opposition.
Ironically, the turmoil appears in one way to have been a boost to U.S. efforts to fight al-Qaida in Yemen, considered the terror network’s most active and dangerous branch.
Saleh seems to have sought to cling to power by making himself more valuable to Washington, which has pressed him to retire and allow a stable transition. In recent months, Saleh —long criticized as unreliable in his fight against al-Qaida — has given U.S. counterterrorism units a far freer hand to act in his country, U.S. and Yemeni officials say.
Top U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has said the Yemenis have been more willing to share information about the location of al-Qaida targets. Yemeni security officials say the U.S. was conducting multiple airstrikes a day in the south since May and that U.S. officials were finally allowed to interrogate al-Qaida suspects, something Saleh had long resisted. The officials spokes on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
The cooperation was key to hunting down Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni cleric who was killed in Friday’s strike by U.S. drones in a desert stretch of central Yemen. Killed with him was Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who was a propagandist for the group, producing its English-language Web magazine, Inspire.