Yemen: "Perfect storm of problems" for West

Six months ago, a singular act of protest in Tunisia began what has become an overwhelming wave of revolution and change in the Middle East - a movement called the Arab Spring. All this week, "The Early Show" looks at where the revolution now stands - and where the concerns lie - in five different countries, as the region moves into the "Arab Summer."

While the Arab Spring has renewed hopes for millions of people in Tunisia and Egypt, it's brought chaos and violence to Yemen. It's a rapidly deteriorating situation that has U.S. counterterrorism officials on edge.

Yemen is the home to the most lethal al Qaeda franchise: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The fear is the group will exploit the chaos to plot fresh attacks.

According to CBS News Homeland Security correspondent Bob Orr, U.S. officials say there's a growing risk of the country becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

"I think this is the greatest near-term problem coming out of the Arab Spring for the United States," said CBS News security analyst Juan Zarate. "What you have is al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula already operating in Yemen, gaining breathing space. This is a lethal group that has adapted and it is clearly still targeting the West."

"This is the poorest country in the Arabian Gulf. You've got the resource problems, an economy that is very weak at best. You've got water problems that are increasing over time. Yemen has relied on the oil industry and on tourism, both of which have diminished over time in terms of revenues."

Zarate said the country could be marching toward failed-state status. "This is really a country with a perfect storm of problems," he said. "You have demographic pressures; economic problems; resource issues like diminishing oil returns and water reserves that are very low; and you've got militancy and extremism, tribal fractures. So you've got a host of real big problems here that are now emerging with President Saleh not being able to control the country."

As the Yemeni government disintegrates and the country edges closer to civil war, the threat of a new terror strike against America grows.

"The threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is metastasizing and it is growing and it is morphing, and to some extent getting worse," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

AQAP has already tried twice in the past 18 months to hit the U.S.: First, with the Christmas Day 2009 "underwear" bombing attempt on a Northwest flight over Detroit; and again last fall, with sophisticated explosive devices found hidden inside computer printers on cargo planes destined for America.

While those attacks failed, AQAP has vowed to try again.

But the embattled Yemeni government is in no position to counter the blossoming terror threat. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was injured when his palace was shelled Friday, is focused on survival.

Reporting from the capital Sanaa, journalist Iona Craig told "The Early Show" that a tenuous cease-fire (brokered by Saudi Arabia) to try to halt fighting in the city between tribesmen and the president's troops seemed to have collapsed last night, when there was heavy fighting in the north of the city, with gunfire heard for several hours.

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When asked if President Saleh might return after traveling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, Craig said, "I think it's unlikely because Saudi Arabia will certainly try and prevent that from happening, I'm sure, as well as U.S. diplomats. It's an opportunity now while he's gone for the transfer of power that's been on the table for two weeks to be initiated and for some sort of change to be made."

"Saudi Arabia has enormous influence over Yemen, in part because they are the big neighbor to the north," said Zarate. "Clearly they have been the source of financing for President Saleh - the large amount of financing that his government has used to control the tribes and his military.

"I find it very hard to believe [Saleh] is not going to try to get back, but it's not clear that Saudi Arabia will want that to happen," said Zarate. "They'll want to see a peaceful transition here, and they don't want to see instability on their doorstep."

U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen have also been limited, though that may be changing. Just days after Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs, the U.S. fired Predator missiles at one of AQAP's top operators, American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

From his hideout in Yemen, Awlaki - a recruiting superstar on Jihadist websites - is openly calling for more attacks on the West. His radical message, for now, is unchecked.

"This is someone who is obviously fluent in English, grew up in the United States, is aware of our cultures, our nuances, and what makes us tick," said Cilluffo.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, the unrest in Yemen largely began as a grassroots movement for reform.

But, as the protests and government reactions spiral out of control, Yemen edges closer to a leaderless vacuum ... closer to the perfect safe haven for nurturing terror.

Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, has always been a magnet for radicals. But now it threatens to be a full-blown sanctuary for terrorists, looking more and more like Afghanistan in the days before 9/11.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and