Mr. Saleh, who returned to Yemen last week from three months of treatment of severe wounds he suffered during an attack in June on his presidential compound, has sought to portray himself as the only obstacle to Al Qaeda grapping power in the Red Sea geo-strategic country straddling Red Sea. In recent interviews, he has asserted that his departure would bring the Muslim Brotherhood and with it Al Qaeda to power in Yemen.
Mr. Awlaki’s death compounds the major body blows Al Qaeda has suffered in the past ten months with the killing in May by US Navy Seals of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and the Arab revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
It also significantly reduces Mr. Saleh’s controversial role in the fight against an increasingly weakened Al Qaeda.
US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks detail the president’s willingness to allow the US to conduct a military campaign against Al Qaeda on its territory as long as he could maintain plausible deniability because of overwhelming public opposition to foreign operations on Yemeni territory.
At the same time, the cables discussed Mr. Saleh’s failure to provide agreed anti-terror training to Yemeni airport officials, permitting of cargo to pass through x-ray machines unchecked and refusal to act on US suspicions that several Yemeni Islamic institutions were Al Qaeda recruiting grounds.
Few doubt that Mr. Saleh has repeatedly manipulated the terrorist threat in Yemen and played both ends against the middle to curry US and European favor. Powerful dissident military commander Brigadier-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the head of the first armored brigade who defected to the protesters in March, has gone as far as charging that Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affilitate to which Mr. Awlaki belongs was a creature of Mr. Saleh’s making to secure Western military and economic support.
From a US perspective, Al Qaeda has been weakened to a degree that it can risk Mr. Saleh being succeeded by a government that at worst would be as unreliable and duplicit an ally as he was.
The peaceful mass anti-government protests that toppled Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, brought the autocratic regimes of Syrian president Bashar al Assad and Mr. Saleh to the brink of demise, and only morphed into a civil war in Libya after ousted Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi employed his armed forces highlight the rejection of Al Qaeda’s militant Islam and indiscriminate violence by a majority of Middle Easterners and North Africans.
Mr. Awlaki’s death may well strengthen a growing belief that Al Qaeda has been reduced to a local threat in the three areas where it still retains a presence of any significance: Yemen with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that suffered a serious blow with the departure of the Yemeni-American cleric, Somalia where Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab has been forced to surrender territory in recent months and Algeria where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has largely limited itself to harassing Algerian forces.
Increasingly, western counterterrorism officials and analysts are coming to the conclusion that the body blows dealt to Al Qaeda render it incapable of launching large scale, dramatic attacks of the kind it perpetrated in the last decade such as the 9/11 targeting of the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the 2005 and 2007 attacks on public transport in London and Madrid and the bombings of multiple targets in Casablanca, Amman and Saudi Arabia. The attacks in Arab cities moreover played a key role in diminishing Al Qaeda’s public appeal in much of the Muslim world.
Western counterterrorism officials stop short of declaring victory in their more than a decade-old fight against Al Qaeda. Yet, the organization they are fighting today is but a shadow of what it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Saleh’s inability to leverage his cooperation in the hunting down of Mr. Awlaki to reduce US, Western and Saudi pressure for his resignation after 33 years in office was evident with the Obama administration’s reiteration of its insistence that he step down in the same breath as acknowledging his part in the death of the Yemeni-American.
US and European diplomats are nudging Mr. Saleh behind closed doors to agree to a transition plan under which he would step down within a maximum of 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and members of his family.
Mr. Saleh’s contribution to the killing of Mr. Awlaki may amount to little more than standing aside and letting the US do the dirty work. In doing so, he may have highlighted his increasing irrelevance rather than his importance. Mr. Saleh’s successors will not need the perception of a terrorist threat to secure international assistance in rebuilding their crisis-ridden country.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.