By Nic Robertson, CNN Sr. International Correspondent
In an exclusive interview Wednesday, Yemen’s Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansoor Hadi told me security in his country is “deteriorating.” He said in many of those provinces the government is battling al Qaeda who have gone on the offensive as the government battles calls for its ouster.
Hadi told me five provinces had fallen beyond the government’s control. That sounds alarming, but one Western diplomat in the capital believes it is actually optimistic. “I think it’s more than five,” the diplomat said.
Nowhere is the instability more obvious than Zinjabar, capital of Abyan province in the south. Not far from Yemen’s second city – the port of Aden – Zinjibar looks out on some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda took control of the city more than a month ago and in just the last few days their fighters attacked a stadium housing government troops just outside the city More than 30 soldiers were killed before the government says it regained the upper hand.
Such battles are stoking fears among Western diplomats and counter-terrorism officials that al Qaeda is taking advantage of Yemen’s instability. One Western diplomat says: “We are very concerned about the situation in Abayan and Zinjabar ... This is a different strategy that we haven’t seen from them before, where they actually try to take territory in their own name, hold it, try to govern it.”
Among some well-informed Westerners in Yemen, there is a fear that the loss of Abyan is only the beginning – and that al Qaeda is trying to encircle Aden – less than 100 kilometers away. In 2000 an al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole while it was moored in Aden killed 17 US sailors.
Concern is even growing that al Qaeda might even try to move in to Aden, following a rare suicide car bombing there the government was quick to blame on al Qaeda.
In an indication of just how serious the situation has become Yemen’s defense minister is in Aden trying to hold back al Qaeda’s advance and deal with the influx of displaced people fleeing the fighting in nearby Abyan. UN agencies say more than 40,000 people have been displaced by the unrest in the south.
According to the diplomat, the stakes are high, and the government must beat back the challenge from al Qaeda – and fast. “I think the answer is if you do it now it’s do-able. If you fail now and they have an opportunity to dig in and establish themselves it will be harder.”
Yemen’s Vice President has been heard to lament that al Qaeda fighters are willing to die, implying his own forces are less willing to lay down their lives in battle.
That said, the diplomat we spoke to does think the army is doing better than expected. “They have done a better job than anyone anticipated in terms of hanging on."
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, is the most operationally active of all of al Qaeda’s franchises. It was a bomb-maker here who made the ‘underpants bomb’ used to try to bring a plane down over Detroit Christmas 2009. Western counter-terrorism officials say the same bomber, Ibrahim al-Asiri, designed the – printer package bombs shipped to the U.S. as cargo last year.
The diplomat believes al-Asiri is still making bombs but may not be directly involved in the fighting with Yemeni government forces. “It’s a big question,” he says, “and I think the sense is that these people who are involved in these external operations are not the same as the guys down in Abyan.”
But he believes al-Asiri is still active and “he’s always looking for new ideas.” The diplomat put it this way. “I would not say that every single person that joins the fight down there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula but there is no doubt in our minds I think that AQAP is directing this and that you have a number of senior AQAP figures who are involved in this operation.”
Yemen’s vice president told me U.S. unmanned drone aircraft are helping target al Qaeda activists, pinpointing their locations using voice recognition software. But he said the lion’s share of the fight was in Yemeni hands.
In May, both U.S. and Yemeni officials confirmed a U.S. drone strike against the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Awlaki while he was driving in a convoy somewhere in southern Yemen. He narrowly escaped.
Some in Yemen’s opposition have sought to characterize al Qaeda’s strength here as a figment of injured President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s imagination, something he used to bolster his support from the West.
Now, according to the diplomat, Yemenis they are beginning to realize how bad the al Qaeda problem has become.
“When we talk to the opposition, when we tell them what our concerns are generally they share our concerns and they have a similar objective to the role that we are trying to play to push al Qaeda out,” the diplomat said.
Of growing concern here is the desperate state of Yemen’s economy. Observers fear it is pushing young people who had taken to the streets demanding democratic change toward militias, in some cases even groups influenced by al Qaeda, to get cash and an identity.
It has become a multi-faceted crisis – and there is no indication of a dynamic government response to the challenge posed by al Qaeda. Political paralysis in the capital keeps large chunks of the military that are still loyal to the government far from the battlefield in an edgy stand-off with army brigades and militia that have joined the opposition.
All the while al Qaeda and other Islamist militants are consolidating their grip in the south.