There is no doubt that al Qaeda has a presence in Yemen but the level of its role in the current conflict remains unclear. President Saleh believes it is a great threat while his rivals say its influence is exaggerated.
Al Qaeda is in Yemen but its threat is a matter of debate
Yemen appears to be slipping closer to a full-scale civil war as fighting between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and followers of Yemen's most powerful tribal leader Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar intensifies.
The violence and opposition inspired by President Saleh's reluctance to relinquish power after 33 years in charge is clearly pushing the impoverished Arab state closer to the abyss but what is less clear are the motives and even the true allegiances of those involved.
On the surface, the grievances stoking the escalating conflict seem clear cut. In response to rising hostility and unrest inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests spreading across the Arab world, Saleh originally agreed to step down and pass control of Yemen to a transitional government as part of an agreement brokered by concerned regional neighbors on the Gulf Cooperation Council.
However, after months of street protests and calls from the international community for Saleh to honor the agreement, the president - after reneging on his promise to stand down a further three times - remains in power and has responded to popular demands by launching a severe crackdown on demonstrators and a military campaign against his rivals for power.
In these terms, it appears to be a conflict stoked by the stubbornness of an intransient leader and the willingness of his opponents to take up arms to remove him.
But with Saleh claiming that he is in fact remaining in power not for his own personal reasons but to protect Yemen from al Qaeda which, he claims, will exploit any power vacuum that could follow his departure, the dynamics of the conflict become more complicated.
Saleh hangs on
Saleh claims his staying in power helps to stop al Qaeda
Yemen has long been regarded as the next potential front for al Qaeda's global jihad with the presence of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seen by many world leaders and security experts as one of the biggest threats to regional and international security.
AQAP is considered one al Qaeda's most intrepid franchises with its operatives capable of carrying out daring and inventive bombing plots overseas.
While there is significant evidence that AQAP is active in Yemen and is using increasingly lawless areas of the country as bases from which to launch attacks beyond Yemen's borders, there is a growing belief that Saleh could be exaggerating the threat within his own country for his own advantage, much like Moammar Gadhafi did at the start of the Libyan conflict and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak before him.
"Saleh is known for the creative use of chaos as a means of control, and has pitted jihadists against the South before, so it could be a strategy," Professor Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert at the University of Richmond and the American University in Cairo, told Deutsche Welle.
The president is acutely aware of the international concern over AQAP's rise and the threat of Yemen becoming a failed state, and has benefitted from the military and financial aid the United States has pumped into his country to counter the growing influence of al Qaeda and to prop up his fragile regime.
The US provides around $150 million (104 million euros) a year for intelligence assistance and training, and between $20 million and $50 million a year in humanitarian aid.
"Saleh clearly plays the al Qaeda card to demonstrate his value to the West, and the US only stopped saying about a month ago that if he steps down, what Washington calls AQAP will take over," Carapico added.
With reports coming out of Yemen that militants thought to be AQAP fighters have made significant gains in the south of the country, Saleh could potentially use these developments to call on more international support or at least point to these gains as justification for his decision not to stand down.
Saleh's troops have been fighting militants in the south
Islamists, reported by the Yemeni government to be AQAP militants, seized control of Zinjibar, the capital city of the Abyan Governorate in the south of the country, last week, occupying several governmental buildings and facilities before withdrawing. This followed a similar operation in March when militants took control of Jaar, another city in Abyan.
Yemen's elite, American-trained counterterrorism units had been engaging AQAP elements in fierce clashes throughout the region in recent months but were pulled out of Abyan just days before the AQAP raid on Zinjibar took place. Reports from Zinjibar claimed that the militants were unopposed and took over the city without a shot being fired, an unusual event given the severity of combat that had taken place between government forces and militants in the preceding weeks.
Local residents in Zinjibar also claim that, far from being hardcore AQAP fighters, the militants were members of the estimated 300-strong Ansar al-Sharia movement, a group of local tribesman committed to setting up a fundamentalist state in the south of Yemen, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Ansar al-Sharia is thought to have no connections with the protestors in the capital Sanaa or the opposition forces battling his troops elsewhere in the country.
The Yemeni opposition has accused Saleh of surrendering Abyan to the Islamists in an attempt to stoke fear among the population of an al Qaeda takeover and consolidate his own position as the country's protector. It was also claimed that the Islamist raid helped to distract attention away from the increasingly brutal government crackdown on the popular uprising in the north.
AQAP threat real
AQAP has hit targets in Yemen and is active beyond its borders
Regardless of whether Saleh is attempting to exaggerate the al Qaeda threat to his own ends - or if the opposition is attempting to play it down to discredit the president's claims - the fact remains that there is an AQAP presence in Yemen and one which could potentially profit from the country's slide into civil war.
"When Saudi Arabia cracked down on al Qaeda, many fighters fled across the border and retreated to Yemen," Daniel Korski, senior analyst at the European Center for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
"Then there were the returning insurgents from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were Yemeni, and the released detainees from Guantanamo Bay. These people, along with the many al Qaeda operatives who broke out of jail in Yemen to become regional commanders in the tribal areas, have been gathering in the country for some time now."
According to Carapico, fears of al Qaeda's growing influence and power have always been exaggerated, however she warns that even a small group could exploit the volatile situation.
"Of course 200-300 al Qaeda plus other miscellaneous jihadists could contribute to the rising level of chaos, so in this sense they do constitute some level of threat."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge