Floundering regimes always blame their plight on enemies, real or imaginary: the more anxious the autocrat, the more fictional the foe. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak fingered the Muslim Brotherhood. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pointed to Iran. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi alternates between youth on hallucinatory drugs and al-Qaeda. And on March 1, Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, his 32-year reign threatened by the popular uprising sweeping across the Middle East, accused ... No, you'd best hear this in his own words. "There is an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world," he said in a speech at Sana'a University. The operations room in question, he added, is "run by the White House."
But a day later, Saleh seemed much less defiant as he accepted a proposal to ease him out of office. A government spokesman told TIME the President had agreed to a five-point plan suggested by opposition parties although the timeline for his departure remained vague. (Saleh also apologized to U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan for insinuating that the White House had played a role in the fall of Arab regimes.)
It's not yet clear whether Saleh's deal with the opposition parties will satisfy antiregime protesters who have been demonstrating across the country for two weeks running, enduring violent attacks by Saleh's thugs and riot police. They were unimpressed by the President's earlier promise not to stand for re-election in 2013: they want him out now. "There is no [deal] that will be acceptable," said Khaled el-Anesi, a human-rights lawyer and leader of the mostly young protesters. "The last word will come from the street." Saleh's political rivals in recent days, their ranks have been swelled by defections from his party and the decision of major tribal leaders to abandon their longtime patron now sense weakness and may push him to a swifter exit.
Saleh, 68, may simply have waited too long to make a bargain. He "does not have a lot of options left," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. "The problem is that he believes he can still act and negotiate from a position of strength when in fact the ground has shifted substantially under his feet."
For the Obama Administration, which is struggling with the consequences of the toppling of other Arab dictators, Saleh's predicament is especially worrisome. Impoverished Yemen (pop. 24 million) may be at the fringes of the world economy and Arab politics, but it punches well above its weight in global terrorism, as both a supplier of jihadists to holy wars abroad and a home for al-Qaeda's most ambitious franchise. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind many major terrorist plots uncovered in the U.S. over the past two years, including last fall's effort to use the global airfreight network to detonate bombs on board a Chicago-bound plane and the attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The group also shelters the American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been in Yemen since 2004 and has been linked to several of these plots.
Saleh, who long ignored the terrorist threat, has recently been responsive to U.S. pressure to crack down: dozens of Yemeni soldiers have been killed in campaigns against terrorists. He has allowed the CIA to employ drone attacks against AQAP targets in Yemen, taking the blame when the strikes evoked popular outrage a fact embarrassingly revealed by WikiLeaks in November. The Obama Administration doubled counterterrorism aid to $150 million in 2010, and U.S. special forces are helping train Yemeni troops. Regime change in Sana'a could jeopardize that cooperation and potentially take pressure off AQAP a point that Saleh's officials have been keen to make since the protesters began to press for his ouster. "If we go, this country will be wide open," one official tells TIME, asking not to be named. "People who want to support these so-called revolutionaries should stop and ask themselves if these kids can protect the world from al-Qaeda."
Our Wars Are Not Your Wars
Dire warnings by a flailing regime should not be taken at face value, but there's good reason to worry that any new government in Sana'a may not take AQAP as seriously as Saleh has belatedly done. Yemen faces two other internal dangers: a Shi'ite rebellion in the north and a separatist movement in the south. Most Yemenis regard those as greater existential threats than any posed by AQAP. "Our priorities," says Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism official who has spent a great deal of time in Yemen, "are not necessarily their priorities."
That point was made more vividly by a pro-American Yemeni sheik I met in Sana'a last November. "I support al-Qaeda," Abdullah al-Jamili told me. He noted my look of surprise with a nod and a smile of satisfaction. "Go ahead, write it down: I support al-Qaeda. They help me fight my enemies, so I support them." Photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I had heard this line before when, back in 2003, Iraqi tribesmen made common cause with jihadists to fight the U.S. military. Many of those Iraqis would eventually be murdered by al-Qaeda, and as al-Jamili plied us with bottles of nonalcoholic beer, we could visualize the same fate befalling this genial Yemeni.
Like the Iraqi sheiks, al-Jamili really has little in common with al-Qaeda. He seeks to bring development funds to his native province of al-Jawf, in northern Yemen, and until recently regarded Islamic extremism as a threat. But, just days before we met, al-Jamili had had a change of heart. Only a few days before, AQAP had pulled off a pair of spectacular attacks in northern Yemen. The targets were religious processions by a Shi'ite group known as the Houthis, who have been fighting a six-year rebellion against the Saleh regime and now control large parts of the north. In al-Jawf, those who don't support the Houthi cause face intimidation and extortion. So when suicide bombers killed nearly 60 Houthis, it won AQAP many admirers, including al-Jamili. "I respect al-Qaeda for one reason: they hit the Houthis," he said.
I pointed out that al-Qaeda is unlikely to have much respect for him. As a Shi'ite and head of an NGO that works with Western agencies, al-Jamili is, in jihadist eyes, twice deserving of execution. But he waved off my arguments. "That won't happen here," he said. "Yemen is different."
Unlike the sheik, Ramadan Mohammed, who works for an oil company in southern Yemen, had no illusions about AQAP. "They are people without souls," he told me when we met at a fish market in the ancient port city of Aden. "All they want to do is kill and kill." But he was nonetheless critical of Saleh's recent efforts to crack down on the terrorists. The President, he said, should be concentrating on the demands of southern Yemenis, who were being denied a fair share of jobs and resources. The once separate countries of South Yemen and North Yemen merged amicably in 1990, but the union soured when Saleh's northerners began to monopolize political power and economic opportunity. The President put down an uprising in 1994, but a new separatist movement known as Herak has emerged. In comparison, Mohammed felt, AQAP was a trifling matter: "They are some crazy boys, and we're talking about the problems of men."
A State of Denial
But those "crazy boys" have a history of growing up to pose problems for men. Yemen has long been a recruiting ground for jihadists keen to fight in Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They gained a reputation for being fierce soldiers. Osama bin Laden, whose grandfather was from the eastern region of Hadramaut, was said to favor Yemenis. (More than half the remaining 173 detainees in the Guantánamo Bay detention center are Yemenis.) But since the jihadists represented no threat to Saleh, he did little to stamp them out. Only after al-Qaeda's 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor did Yemen's authorities begin, fitfully, to move against the jihadists.
More recently, with Western military and intelligence agencies cracking down on al-Qaeda operations elsewhere, Yemen has emerged as a relatively safe haven and base of operations. Which means Yemeni jihadists no longer need to cross deserts and oceans to train and fight; they can wage holy war from home. And the plots against targets in the U.S. and Europe show they're as skilled as terrorist masterminds as they were as soldiers. "In terms of how sophisticated they are with tactics and their ability to execute operations outside their own territory, [AQAP] today is where bin Laden was, say, in 1998," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. That was the year al-Qaeda announced itself to the world by bombing the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The U.S. has been pressing Saleh to do more. But a pliant President is only as useful as the extent of his control over the country. Although Saleh's security forces have kept AQAP out of cities like Sana'a and Aden, they have little or no presence in large swaths of Yemen, especially in the east and north, where the jihadists are sheltered by tribal connections. There's no reason to believe Saleh's successor will be able to exert any more authority than he has in these areas.
It doesn't help that many Yemenis, including leading opposition politicians, believe the West is exaggerating the threat from AQAP and especially from al-Awlaki, whose online English-language sermons have no audience in Yemen. "Nobody had even heard about him until the Americans began to talk about him," says Ezzadin Saeed al-Asbahi, a human-rights activist. Still others say AQAP may be a threat to the U.S. but not to Yemen. And some simply accuse Saleh of exploiting U.S. paranoia over al-Qaeda to extract money and munitions. "Al-Qaeda is just a card in the hand" of Saleh, says opposition leader Ansaf Mayo.
Nothing to Show for 32 Years
In Sana'a the threat of AQAP is easy to dismiss. There have been few terrorist attacks there; the city is safer than Islamabad, Kabul or Baghdad. A Westerner can hail a cab in the street and be driven safely from the upscale suburb of Hadda across town to the ancient suqs of the old walled city. Sana'a would be a magnet for American and European tourists, Abubakr al-Qirbi, Yemen's Foreign Minister, tells me, if only the U.S. and European governments would withdraw their alarming travel advisories. At more than 7,200 ft. (2,200 m) above sea level, the city is cooler than most places in the Arab world and more beautiful.
But it's also much, much poorer. Beggars rarely seen elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula swarm cars at intersections. At roadside restaurants with outdoor seating, they scramble to grab any leftovers before waiters can remove the plates. Unlike its neighbors, Yemen has little oil or natural gas. Many families survive on remittances from Yemenis working as manual laborers in wealthier Middle Eastern nations, and the global recession has shrunk the number of even those jobs. "If you're a young Yemeni, you don't have any reason for hope," says Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the English-language Yemen Times, which is frequently critical of Saleh. "There's no reason to think your life will be better than your parents'."
And there are plenty of young Yemenis: 74% of the population is under 30 years old, an astonishingly high proportion even by the standards of the Arab world. In recent years, Saleh's economic planners have woken up to the challenges posed by the youth bulge and have sought to goose the economy into creating jobs. They've tried, for instance, to capitalize on Sana'a's cooler temperatures to market it as a place for Arabs from other countries to build summer homes. But investment has been fitful, and unemployment remains astronomical: nearly half of Yemenis ages 15 to 29 are neither going to school nor employed.
The combination of a sclerotic regime and high youth unemployment alarmed U.S. officials even before the uprisings broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, where those problems were less acute. Back in November, the U.S. counterterrorism official told Time, "What Yemenis are most upset about is, they have poor schools, health care, sanitation." At the time, the prospect of a youth-led revolt seemed remote. The official was concerned that such conditions were ideal for incubating jihadi sentiments and acknowledged that simply increasing counterterrorism assistance to the Saleh regime would not be enough.
In 2010, U.S. humanitarian assistance to Yemen more than doubled, to $42.5 million. Yemeni officials wanted more, much more. Foreign Minister al-Qirbi pointed out that "every dollar we spend on counterterrorism is a dollar we're not spending on something else." But giving more to the Saleh regime was problematic: according to Transparency International, Yemen is one of the most corrupt places on the planet. Saleh's critics point out that the counterterrorism forces that receive substantial U.S. funding are controlled by the President's family his son Ahmad Ali and nephews Yahya and Ammar who also have extensive business interests. So the Obama Administration began to nudge Saleh toward making his government more transparent, less corrupt. On a trip to Sana'a in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Saleh to drop his plans to amend the country's constitution to enable him to run for office again in 2013. In time, U.S. officials hoped, Saleh could be persuaded to give his opponents a greater voice.
But young Yemenis weren't prepared to wait that long. Protesters began to gather at Sana'a University shortly after the fall of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January. By the time Egypt's Mubarak fell, a month later, Yemenis were assembling for demonstrations in most major towns and cities. Even the Houthis staged peaceful marches in the north. If Saleh hoped to brazen it out, defections from his General People's Congress party made that impossible. The unkindest cut of all may have been the desertion of Hussein al-Ahmar, a leader of the Hashids, Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation. His father Abdullah had been speaker of Yemen's parliament and long a Saleh ally. Now Hussein has called on "all honorable men" to quit what he's termed the "congress of corruption."
Whether Saleh goes at the end of the year or succumbs sooner to the protests, al-Ahmar's tribal affiliation will make him a potential successor. But his long association with the regime won't endear him to young Yemenis. Nor will they easily take to the main opposition party, Islah, which includes hard-line Islamists. U.S. officials will not have been reassured to see Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, an influential radical cleric and onetime mentor of bin Laden's, joining the protests recently.
Saleh's departure would also probably embolden both the southern separatists and the Houthis in the north. That, in turn, could set off alarm across the peninsula: Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, already anxious about the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain, regards the Houthis as dangerous heretics. Northern Yemenis say Saudi forces have on occasion crossed the border to strike at Houthis. And then there's AQAP, which has called for toppled Arab regimes to be replaced by Islamic rule.
The multitude of challenges facing anyone seeking to govern the country explains why Saleh once likened running Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes." His successor had better have nimble feet.
with reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington and Oliver Holmes and Erik Stier / Sana'A