Arab and Western officials worry that Al Qaeda is securing a stronghold in Yemen, where the government's focus on quelling a rebel insurgency is allowing the terror group to strengthen its ability to destabilize neighbors in East Africa and the Mideast.

Yemen's government, which has long struggled to assert control over the country's far-flung tribes and Islamic militant groups, launched a new offensive this summer against rebels living near its northern border with Saudi Arabia. The fighting, now in its seventh week, has shaken a fragile humanitarian situation. United Nations officials warned recently that food aid in the region is running low.

A report released this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that Yemen is facing "unprecedented" levels of instability.

The homeland of Usama bin Laden's father, Yemen has long been a top U.S. security concern. For years, Al Qaeda militants — including at least one Saudi released from U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — have taken refuge here. One complication surrounding the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo is what to do with the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees there. U.S. intelligence officials say they have little confidence in the Yemeni government's ability to keep them in prison back in their home country.

Since the 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, U.S. officials have reported mixed results from the Yemeni government in the fight against terrorism. President Ali Abdullah Saleh established a rehabilitation program for jailed Islamic militants, but hasn't curbed the growing network of Al Qaeda fighters who have flocked to lawless parts of Yemen and are using the country as a launching pad for attacks.

U.S. officials say they believe that the lack of resolve on the part of the Yemeni government is due to President Saleh's preoccupation with what he sees as more pressing internal security threats coming from the nation's fractious political and tribal system.

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