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Yemen Crisis Cripples US Counterterrorism Efforts Against Al-Qaida

Militant conflict in Yemen has led to near-civil war, crippling U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

President Barack Obama once touted Yemen as a success story in the fight against terrorism. Now, Iran-backed forces control the capital city, AQAP is gaining footholds in southern and eastern areas, and the Islamic State is apparently carrying out attacks on Shiite mosques.

The Iran-supported Houthi militants overran the capital of Sanaa last fall, forcing Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to resign. Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden, where he has attempted to regain power ever since.

Adding to the crisis of a divided government, the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for bombings in two mosques frequented by Shiite Houthi fighters last Friday. The attacks killed more than 130 people and followed typical Islamic State signatures, aimed at igniting sectarian tensions to inspire Sunnis to join their ranks.

Yet AQAP has proven the greatest threat to U.S. interests. The group has tried to attack the U.S. homeland three times in the last five years, says Katherine Zimmerman, an expert from the American Enterprise Institute.

But the closure of the U.S. embassy and recent withdrawal of forces has hindered U.S. capabilities in fighting the terrorist organization.

“What the partnership gave us was human intelligence, sources on the ground,” said Zimmerman. “The U.S. fight against AQAP is crippled. We don’t have the intelligence to conduct airstrikes.”

AQAP is linked to the central al-Qaida group in Pakistan, as well as with affiliations in Somalia and Syria. Members fled to Yemen after Saudi Arabia launched a successful counterterrorism campaign in early to mid-2000s. The U.S. has reportedly been launching airstrikes from Saudi Arabia aimed at eliminating AQAP leadership in Yemen for years.

Militants might feel they need to prove the organization “still packs a punch” after the mosque attacks, says Zimmerman.

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