There are new signs that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the Middle East and North Africa’s 2011 turmoil. On Tuesday, security sources confirmed that the militant group’s North Africa branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), kidnapped an Algerian regional governor, Mohamed Laid Khelfi, while he was driving away from a meeting on Monday afternoon. According to witnesses, the governor was taken in the direction of the Libyan border.
Black al-Qaeda flags were flown during a protest in Libya
Two days prior, on Saturday, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), took control of a city 100 miles south of the capital of Sana’a. According to officials, a force of 200 militants stormed the city of Rada’a armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, and other weapons, taking over the city’s police station and prison. The militants freed as many as 200 inmates, including al-Qaeda loyalists, and reportedly raised the al-Qaeda flag over a government building. With Rada’a under its belt, AQAP now controls seven population centers in Southern Yemen.
Yemenis are expected to go to the polls next month to elect a new president and end President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year reign. Yemen is a highly fractured country, however, and there is real fear that with Saleh’s departure, Sana’a will not have the ability to pull the country’s tribes together.
Between events in Yemen and Algeria, it is clear that al-Qaeda is stepping up its game in the wake of the Arab uprisings and dictators’ forced exit. While Yemen has faced problems with al-Qaeda for years, Saleh’s leave could create a security vacuum for the group to fill. Moreover, Libya under Qaddafi had no real al-Qaeda problem. With the dictator gone, the instability that comes with the transition could very well provide the group with not only a source of weapons, but also another hard-to-police safe haven.