Yemen's improved counterterrorism cooperation was a key to the thwarted plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner, analysts say.
The scheme, confirmed by U.S. officials this week, was hatched in Yemen where political and social unrest has allowed a particularly lethal faction of al-Qaida to find sanctuary, much as the original al-Qaida arm did in Afghanistan.
But counterterrorism experts say the fight against al-Qaida has gained some traction in recent months after the departure from office of longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
During the protests calling for his ouster last year, President Saleh presented himself as an indispensable bulwark against jihadist terrorism.
Sebastian Gorka, military affairs fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says the former Yemeni leader, however, was more talk than action.
“Saleh may have said some things about being America’s last great hope against the Salafists, the fundamentalists, in his part of the world," Gorka said.
"But it is well-known, even just from media reports and unclassified analyses that this man, whilst he was preaching one thing to Washington and to the West, he was playing footsie under the table [cooperating] with the jihadists and the Salafists in his country in his efforts to remain in power," he said. "So Saleh played many countries, not just the United States, like a fiddle.”
Michael Hayden, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, says the intelligence relationship between Mr. Saleh and the West was a difficult one.
“I would never classify President Saleh of Yemen as being an easy counterterrorism partner.," Hayden said. "You always seemed to be involved in almost endless negotiations of things he demanded for frankly what I would characterize mostly as minimal performance on his part."
Many of the original core al-Qaida members were from Yemen’s neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, and analysts say there was an implicit understanding that the group would not attack inside that country.
But starting around 2003, al-Qaida began hitting Western and Saudi targets inside the oil-rich kingdom, infuriating the Saudi royal rulers and sparking a crackdown on the group.
Former CIA director Hayden says the tactical switch by al-Qaida took intelligence analysts by surprise, but that it has proved to be a costly mistake for the terrorist group.
“Frankly, we were a bit surprised that they would do it," Hayden said. "If you’re asking me in just a pure objective sense was this tactically sound, I would say no. But the results were very clear, and they’ve suffered for their mistake.”
When Saudi Arabia took a tougher line against al-Qaida, many of its members fled south across the porous border to Yemen, where they regrouped under the banner of “Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” or AQAP.
U.S. officials say AQAP has now surpassed the original Pakistan-based al-Qaida as the most lethal terrorist threat against the West and its allies.
The U.S. entered into closer intelligence cooperation with the Saudis, ratcheted up drone strikes against AQAP targets in Yemen, and gave the Saleh government security assistance.
President Saleh was already fighting a separatist insurgency in the south and a rebellion by Shi’ite Muslim insurgents known as Houthis in the north when demonstrations against his rule erupted in 2011. He finally transferred power to Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in November but retained his title until he was officially voted out of office in February.
Sebastian Gorka says the counterterrorism cooperation has markedly improved since his departure.
“With his being gone, it seems as if the new administration is not as hypocritical as he was, to put it mildly," Gorka said. "And as a result this crucial country is producing some cooperative attitude that is significantly different from the era of Saleh.”
AQAP, which holds swaths of territory in Yemen, appears to be now taking the fight directly to the Yemeni military.
On May 7 AQAP, fighting under the banner of “Ansar al-Sharia,” attacked two military bases in southern Yemen, killing an estimated 32 troops and overrunning the outposts.
A missile strike, believed to be by U.S. armed drone aircraft, killed eight suspected AQAP fighters Thursday in the southern town of Jaar.