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Threat from Al Qaeda affiliate even greater since death of al-Awlaki, US officials say

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FILE: The late Anwar al-Awlaki in a 2009 video posted on YouTube

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is more of a threat today than it was six months ago despite the death of the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, according to US officials familiar with the situation.

Asked if the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was stronger and better positioned than it was at the time of Anwar al-Awlaki’s death Sept. 30 in a CIA drone strike, one official simply responded, “Yes.”

“AQAP has been on an upward trajectory,” Fox News was told. As the Al Qaeda affiliate has strengthened its base in southern Yemen, U.S. officials said the “expanded domestic footprint provides more room and more opportunity to invite operatives from abroad, more recruits to train and continue plotting external attacks.”

One U.S. official even characterized AQAP’s expansion since May of 2011 as “a bit of a land grab for them,” going as far as to describe how easy it had become for foreign jihadis to join Al Qaeda’s most active affiliate which has increasingly moved from a covert to an overt organization.

“I could take a flight to Aden and get in a taxi cab and tell them to take me to the AQAP check point and get out where (Al Qaeda’s) black flag is flying at the entrance to Zinjibar (another strategic port city in the south) and ask, 'how do I get in on the fun.'"

The group, behind the last two major plots against the United States, including the underwear bomber plot in 2009 and the cargo printer bombs in 2010, remains global in its focus, U.S. officials said, adding that the leadership actively seeks to identify a replacement for the New Mexico-born cleric, who was the first American on the CIA’s kill-or-capture list.

“It’s not exactly clear that there is someone who can fill his (Al-Awlaki’s) shoes,” a U.S. official explained. “Our initial indications are that they (AQAP) are trying to fill his shoes, but it may not be a single individual who is capable of doing it.”

While the new Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has publicly committed to taking the fight to Al Qaeda in his country, U.S. officials describe a new leader whose hands are full with domestic concerns and tribal conflicts. Yemen was characterized as “fragile” and in a “tenuous” situation where instability has not only opened the door to jihadis but also Iran.

“Iran has increasingly bolstered its influence in Yemen in a way we didn’t really see before,” a U.S. official said, reflecting on the last few months where analysts have “definitely seen an increase” in military and financial support.

While the U.S. official cautioned that Tehran is not seen as having a major influence on the ground yet, Fox News was told that the Iranian regime seems determined to hedge its bets by arming and providing money in the north and financial support in the south.

“Yemen is also an area for the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia to play out. Iran sees an opportunity to step in – because everything is shifting and there is a lot of room to maneuver," the official said.

The trajectory over the next six months to a year was described as concerning given the group’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was a longtime protege of Usama bin Laden who believed in the “global jihad,” combined with deteriorating conditions on the ground.

“I don’t know if the word bleak is too dire," one U.S. official said. “But we’ve used it to refer to the long-term picture because declining resources water and oil, the pressures on society now are much greater when it comes to the pressure that could fragment Yemeni society."

Fox News Chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" draws on her reporting into Al-Awlaki and his new generation of recruits -- Al Qaeda 2.0.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.