Yemen’s Saleh warns US: It’s me or Al Qaeda

A man claiming to be an Al-Qaeda member addresses a crowd gathered in Yemen's southern province of Abyan

Yemen's embassy in Washington has been busy trumpeting the expanded military operation it says is taking place against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in south Yemen’s Abyan province.

For the US, which views AQAP as one of the most dangerous Al Qaeda branches after a lucky escape on Christmas Day 2009 when an AQAP-trained bomber failed to detonate his explosives aboard a flight over Detroit, the news that Yemen is cracking down on terrorists might seem welcome.

The Yemeni embassy said AQAP was “taking advantage of the fluid situation in the country” and that AQAP had been offered protection by a few tribal leaders and that “this protection and cooperation has facilitated the recruitment and operations in some districts within that province."

However, the embassy noted, “tribesmen loyal to the state have recently demonstrated their unyielding cooperation with the on-going military campaign to put a halt to AQAP's expansion into their territories.”

"If President Saleh leaves power al-Qaeda will surely take over in five Yemeni provinces,” Abdu Ganadi, a government spokesperson told Global Post. “The opposition should not talk about power transfer and should focus more on fighting terror before it's too late. They are becoming stronger every day.”

In an attempt to combat AQAP the US has pumped arms and training worth at least $150 million into Yemen’s security forces and since 2001 has propped up President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule.

However, opposition figures are quick to point out that Saleh has a long history of using Islamist militants for political ends, including employing former Afghanistan mujahadeen to fight on his side in the 1994 civil war. Key AQAP militants, once caught, have often escaped prison in highly dubious circumstances under Saleh’s rule.

“The regime is trying to spread fear amongst the people with the al-Qaeda ghost. No one supports terror like the Saleh regime,” said Abdul Ghani Shamiri, a senior official working with former Saleh loyalist turned opposition leader General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.

Shamiri charges Saleh is raising the spectre of AQAP in a last ditch attempt to win back crucial US political and military support for his continuing rule. “If the regime falls al-Qaeda will fall with it. Saleh is the core reason why al-Qaeda is strong today and the United States must not fall prey to his traps every time he raises the al-Qaeda file,” said Shamiri.

So is the US buying Saleh’s AQAP line? Doesn’t look it, this time.

White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan reportedly asked Saleh in a meeting Sunday in Saudi Arabia, where the president has been receiving medical treatment after an assassination attempt, to “expeditiously” agree to transfer power to the vice president and step down, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.