Antigovernment protesters in Sana, Yemen's capital, make a point… (Hani Mohammed / Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo — Two alleged Al Qaeda militants were killed when their car exploded Thursday in southern Yemen, an incident that bore the marks of a U.S. missile strike.
The deaths, reported by the Yemeni Defense Ministry, came a day after six Yemeni soldiers were killed when their military vehicle exploded near a market in Zinjibar, an Al Qaeda stronghold. Surviving soldiers opened fire, killing four civilians, a local journalist said.
Witnesses to the explosion Thursday reported seeing a drone aircraft in the wake of the incident, suggesting an American missile struck the car. The U.S. military began flying unmanned aircraft over Yemen last year, although at the time they were used for surveillance rather than strikes on militants. Pentagon officials had no comment on Thursday's incident.
The deaths cast a spotlight on the continuing fight against Al Qaeda in the wake of the killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden, by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan. Bin Laden's demise is not likely to weaken the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, where members are believed to be exploiting recent public unrest in the capital, Sana, to expand their influence in impoverished rural towns and villages.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the latest iteration of Al Qaeda in Yemen, has drawn the attention of Western and Saudi intelligence agencies in recent months, more than Al Qaeda affiliates in South Asia.
The group has been linked to multiple international terrorism plots, including planting bombs aboard U.S.-bound planes last fall. Experts believe an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula member built the bombs used in the failed attack by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009 and in another failed suicide attack that year, on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayif.
Unlike other Al Qaeda offshoots that relied on Bin Laden directives, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's members have sworn oaths of loyalty to Nasser Wuhayshi, a former Bin Laden associate with the authority to order his own domestic and regional attacks, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert based at Princeton University.
"Bin Laden's death will not affect the issue of extremism in Yemen. Al Qaeda has many cells throughout the world and in Yemen, and even if the head of the organization is cut, other cells will come," said Murad Azzany, a professor at Yemen's Sana University who studies Islamist groups. "Extremism in Yemen flourishes primarily because of the political situation here. When rulers lack legitimacy, their people search for other sources of inspiration."
In Yemen, the 3-month-old protest movement to unseat President Ali Abdullah Saleh has provided opportunity for Al Qaeda to consolidate gains, particularly in the impoverished tribal south and east.
This week, as Saleh spurned mediation efforts by leaders of nearby Persian Gulf countries that would have had him step down in return for political immunity, Yemen appeared to be nearing either fundamental reform or civil war, each with profound consequences for the future of Al Qaeda.
"The organization in Yemen is very eager to conduct operations inside the country, in the region and abroad," Johnsen said."It remains to be seen whether, after Bin Laden's death, more people will want to join the Yemeni organization and carry on a kind of link with his personality."
One powerful, motivating force is likely to be U.S.-born imam Anwar Awlaki, believed to be hiding in southeastern Yemen, who has inspired terrorist attacks against the West. In 2009, Awlaki was promoted to the rank of "regional commander" within Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials, and he has since used Facebook and YouTube to exhort Muslims around the world to kill Americans.
"He is emerging as a voice for recruiting individuals in the West," Johnsen said. "This is not at all like the traditional recruitment practices of the organization under Bin Laden's command in previous decades."
But Johnsen said Awlaki's appeal, though potent, is unlikely to draw Al Qaeda operatives to Yemen en masse, particularly from strongholds such as Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda wants to be as active as possible in as many places as it can," Johnsen said.
Within Yemen, the general populace does not appear to be swayed by Al Qaeda appeals for jihad.
"Osama bin Laden has no relation to me or to Yemen," said Talal Thabit, a businessman in Sana. "Hearing about his death, I feel nothing. My focus is on unseating our corrupt government and building a better future for all Yemenis."
But Saleh's opponents argue that he has allowed Al Qaeda affiliates to thrive and launch attacks.
"Terrorism in Yemen depends on a lack of transparency, and on the grievances produced by a corrupt and inefficient government," said opposition party leader Muhammad Ali Abu Lahoum.
If Saleh's government were replaced, he said, "the dark spaces in society in which these groups hide will be lit up, and their resources and appeal would be diminished."