Awlaki's killing could make Saleh stronger – and Yemen more dangerous than ever

The fallout in Yemen

If you watch one of Anwar al-Awlaki's hundreds of YouTube videos, the first thing that strikes you is the American accent in which he delivers his exhortations to jihad, a residue of his childhood in New Mexico.

But it's misleading. Awlaki spent his teens, and his final and most influential years, in Yemen. And that's where the aftershocks will be felt most strongly, just one week after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. In life, as it may prove in death, Awlaki was probably more important to Saleh's political fate than he was to the global jihadi movement.

The rise of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) presented a strange opportunity for the Yemeni government. The group's ability to threaten the US – as with the underpants bomber of 2009, and last year's cartridge bomb plot – meant that the US saw AQAP rather differently. Yemen was seen almost exclusively through the lens of the war on terror. Although Saleh sought to avoid looking like a Western puppet, he quickly realised that this was an opportunity to siphon off millions in US aid.

That's why the death of Yemen's bête noire, the so-called "bin Laden of the internet", has such curious timing. Pakistan, if you recall, has perfected a technique whereby Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders are arrested or killed days before a US senator is due to visit.

Has Saleh lifted this trick? Yemen is disintegrating because the President, through his family, is refusing to give up power. There's every chance the intelligence leading to Awlaki's death was supplied as an attempt at political survival.

It wouldn't be the first time he has told the US that only he can take on the terrorists. After popular protests in March, Saleh simply withdrew his elite units from theal-Qa'ida-blighted province of Abyan to give Western leaders a taste of what might follow his ousting. If Awlaki was a victim of Yemen's faltering revolution, has Saleh therefore killed the goose that laid the golden eggs? Last year, the President famously told a US diplomat that the Americans were "hot-blooded and hasty when you need us", but "cold-blooded and British when we need you". Even exploiting Awlaki's death may not save Saleh – he is trying the patience of even allies like Saudi Arabia. But his successors needn't worry about being abandoned. The US has been rapidly escalating (frequently counterproductive) drone strikes in Yemen over past months, partly out of concern that AQAP is building links to Somalia's main insurgent group, al-Shabaab.

Perhaps the greatest danger now is that Saleh persuads his outside backers that he is indeed their man in Sanaa but, by clinging on, tears Yemen apart. The resulting opportunities for al-Qa'ida could make Awlaki pale into insignificance.

The writer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin