The unrest engulfing Arab streets and threatening authoritarian governments is complicating U.S. counterterrorism efforts, scrambling the volatile battleground against al-Qaida in Yemen and raising concerns about the durability of Egypt's stance against militants.
U.S. counter terrorism officials need to move quickly to firm up relationships with veteran Mideast intelligence and security services in the aftermath of momentous changes, experts say. Lingering confusion over who will take the reins of power could hamper instant decision-making in the short term. Over the longer term, will the U.S. be able to work as closely against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups if important allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh cede power to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood?
"Right now the situation is so fluid it's just about impossible to make any determinations about long-term repercussions," said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism deputy in the Clinton and second Bush administrations. "The counterterrorism community has to be cautious about even jumping six months ahead." Uncertainty about whether the U.S. can depend on Arab allies to join against militants comes amid growing American concerns following a string of failed attacks plotted in Yemen and al-Qaida's home base inside Pakistan. Less reliance on Mideast partners could force the U.S. to strike back on its own there, if a future terrorist attack were to succeed.
"The next time American interests are attacked and there's a return address in Yemen, the U.S. may have to act unilaterally," said Christopher Boucek, an expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that continuing demonstrations in the Yemeni capital in Sana'a could lead the country's security forces to focus more on protecting the government, giving breathing room to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, suspected in plots against the U.S. in recent months. Some street protests have come from pro-democracy elements, Boucek said. Others have been stirred by Islamic fundamentalist and secessionist groups already arrayed against Saleh's government. In a sign of the mounting alarm about Yemen's role as a terrorist staging area, President Barack Obama told Saleh on the phone this past week about the need for "forceful action" against the al-Qaida affiliate. Obama did praise "the significant reform measures" that Saleh ordered to defuse the protests. Obama also took the unusual step of publicly chiding Saleh for releasing Abd-Ilah al-Shai, a sympathizer of the al-Qaida group who had been sentenced to five years for his ties with it. Al-Shai had met in 2009 with Anwar al-Awlaki, a fugitive militant cleric who is suspected by American authorities of involvement in the Christmas Day plot that year to bomb a Detroit-bound jet and the October 2010 scheme to send mail bombs on planes from Yemen to the U.S. Saleh, who has kept power despite battling three separate insurrections, often has to wire-walk between U.S. officials pressing for more leeway to take the battle against al-Qaida and powerful Yemeni tribes suspicious of his dealings with the Americans. Diplomatic cables released this year by WikiLeaks described the gap between Saleh's public posturing and private utterances - telling top U.S. counterterror adviser John Brennan at one point that he would pretend that a series of U.S. airstrikes had been carried out by Yemeni forces.
"Saleh's good at dancing in the snake pit," said Juan Zarate, a former top Bush administration counterterror official who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The unrest he's dealing with now poses some dangers, but he's pretty adept at getting out of trouble."
Egypt once had to contend with its own breed of hardcore Islamic militants. But three decades of brutal repression by the country's security services _ most recently led by new Vice President Omar Suleiman - largely eliminated them as a threat. The secretive Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization has been headed by al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri since 1991, but Egypt's secret police crushed the group, expelling al-Zawahri and imprisoning its members.