When President Barack Obama told Americans last week that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen "are scrambling, knowing that they can't escape the reach of the United States of America," he may have been telling only half the story.Partial list of errors revolving around the absence of policy discussion:
While al Qaeda's Yemen branch has been hit hard - most notably with the killing of American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki - U.S. officials and experts say there are signs that al Qaeda is making significant gains in Yemen as the government's control over outlying regions continues to fray amid political unrest.
Furthermore, they say, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) hasn't given up its goal of striking the United States, though there have been no attempted attacks on American soil by al Qaeda since 2010.
While the death of al-Awlaki by a CIA-operated drone in September eliminated AQAP's external operations commander and chief recruiter of English-speaking militants, key players remain at-large in Yemen.
They include AQAP leader Naser al-Wuhayshi - a close associate of Osama bin Laden - and Ibrahim al-Ashiri, the skilled bomb-maker U.S. officials believe was behind the attempt to blow up a U.S. commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and a plot to bomb cargo planes belonging to such companies as FedEx the following year.
And while some of al Qaeda's most-wanted members may be "scrambling," as Obama put it during his State of the Union speech Tuesday, AQAP's goal of striking the United States either overseas or at home has not diminished, according to one U.S. official.
"AQAP hasn't changed its two main aims which are to attack the West, while establishing a safe-haven in Yemen. They may have more success at the latter if they continue to take advantage of the political unrest there, which is going to be tense for some time," said the U.S. official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said AQAP members "are taking advantage of the chaos" in Yemen right now.
In addition to the fight against AQAP, Yemen has been wracked with protests throughout the past year, with demonstrators and rival factions demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and calling for elections.
Daniel Green, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that AQAP has much more room to operate within Yemen, and offered a dire prediction: the group has an incentive to launch a spectacular attack in a presidential election year.
"They have shown a very entrepreneurial ability to get explosives into the U.S.," Green said. "I wouldn't put it past them to try and do something this year."
Most of the group's gains have been in the southern provinces where the government exercises little control, according to the experts. Clashes between suspected militants and security forces have been particularly fierce over the past year in southern Abyan province, where suspected AQAP members held the provincial capital of Zinjibar under siege for months before eventually being flushed out.
The U.S. official agreed AQAP is "particularly strong" in the southern provinces and warned, "they'll most likely try to expand from there to establish themselves as a force in the surrounding provinces."
It appeared they did just that with the recent seizure of Radda only 100 miles south of the capital of Sanaa and considered a key transit route to the south. Suspected militants stormed the town earlier this month, taking over government buildings and mosques and freeing inmates from jails, according to local authorities and residents...
Withdrawal by Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization enabled AQAP’s takeover of Abyan governorate and its capital, Zinjibar. These areas have not been cleared.
This deceptive maneuver was replicated in Rada’a.
Although a U.S. official “cautioned against confusing secessionist violence with AQAP actions,” the Obama administration sacrificed Yemen’s Southern Movement to Saleh’s U.S.-trained counter-terrorism forces.
Overall, CNN documents AQAP’s expansion without any reference to America’s deeply unpopular and unstable presence in Yemen. The word "revolution" is never mentioned, being replaced by "turmoil" and "chaos."
CNN has yet to publish a report on Saleh’s recent arrival in New York City.