WASHINGTON – Yemen's U.S.-backed president stepped down this week after Houthi rebels seized the capital of Sanaa, further destabilizing the region and hampering America's ability to fight al-Qaida and other extremists targeting the West. The country's parliament will meet Sunday, but the government's future is unclear.
Five reasons why Americans should care about what is happening in Yemen, a country slightly smaller than Texas situated on the southern border of Saudi Arabia:
Yemen is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the attack on a Paris satirical magazine this month.
Washington has long viewed AQAP as the global terrorist network's most dangerous branch. The group has been linked to a number of failed attacks on the U.S., including a 2009 attempt to down a U.S.-bound jetliner using explosives hidden in a militant's underwear and a plot the following year to ship bombs concealed in printer cartridges to the U.S. on cargo planes from the Gulf.
AQAP has thrived in the wake of the rebel offensive to oust President Abed Rabbo Hadi and his cabinet. U.S. officials say the unrest already is undermining military and intelligence operations against AQAP.
The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday, "We need to get a much better understanding of where things are going politically in Yemen before we can make any new decisions or ... move forward in any significant way on counterterrorism in Yemen."
US DRONE CAMPAIGN
Hadi's resignation leaves the U.S. without a faithful partner amid its drone-strike and counter-terrorism campaign.
For several years, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command have run parallel targeted killing programs in Yemen. There were 23 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen last year and 23 the year before, according to Long War Journal, which tracks the strikes based on local media reports. The U.S. military also has trained elite counterterrorism units of Yemen's military that have battled al-Qaida.
Hadi's demise comes four months after President Barack Obama cited Yemen as a terrorism success story in a September speech outlining his strategy against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, which involves targeted U.S. strikes on militants with the cooperation of a friendly ground force. Obama called it an approach "that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years."
The Houthis are seen as a proxy of Shiite Iran and are allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for more than three decades before he was ousted in 2012 after Arab Spring protests. While the militants deny any Iran link, their slogan, "Death to Israel, Death to America!" is a variation of a popular Iranian slogan.
In recent years, Yemeni authorities have seized ships carrying Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Houthis. The Saudis, who oppose Iran, view the Houthis as both an Iranian proxy and a terrorist organization. Riyadh fears the group will create a mini-state on its southern border.
GUANTANAMO BAY DETAINEES
Obama authorized the transfer of detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison nearly two years ago amid high hopes that Hadi would help the U.S. fight terrorists in his country. The transfer authority, however, was never used because AQAP has thrived amid government instability and ongoing threat from al-Qaida militants.
The Obama administration said recently that the U.S. is not considering sending any of the Yemeni detainees back to their homeland for the foreseeable future because of volatile conditions in the country.
That could make it even harder for Obama to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to close the U.S. military prison for terrorism suspects. Nearly two-thirds of the remaining 122 detainees are from Yemen.
THREAT TO THE US
Although the Houthis hold an anti-American sentiment similar to that of Iranian hardliners and there have been sporadic incidents of violence involving U.S. interests in Yemen, they have in several public statements denied any intent to target the United States, its embassy or its personnel in Sanaa. "Obviously, we expect and call on them to abide by" those statements, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. The department has reduced American staffing at the embassy to a bare minimum, but the mission remains open and there are no plans to close it. U.S. officials do not believe rebel group poses a direct threat to American interests. ___
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.