It has become popular to argue that the Arab Spring will be the downfall of Al Qaeda and its ilk. There is no doubt that mass protests have proven a more potent instrument of regime change than suicide bombs—but it is too early to write off the terrorists either. While the longterm impact of the changes sweeping the Arab world may well be to redress some of the grievances which have given rise to terrorism, in the short term this period of upheavals could create an opening for armed Islamists to seize power. While they are far from having majority support in the Muslim world, jihadists are just the kind of small, well-organized, well-armed, and ruthless clique that—like the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917—can seize power in a moment of revolutionary turmoil.
The latest evidence of the danger comes from Yemen, where a decrepit and unpopular strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been tottering on the brink for weeks. So serious was his situation that he even agreed to give up power—only to renege on his pledge. But Yemen has never been all that strongly governed to begin with, and now there are reports that Islamists are taking advantage of the moment to seize power in the city of Zinjibar. This is a worrisome development because Yemen is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Along with Somalia, it is the country where jihadists currently have the best chance of seizing power.
The U.S. has tried to head off this catastrophe by providing aid to the Saleh regime as well as conducting some Special Operations raids within Yemen. But President Obama not long ago called for Saleh to step down, a belated recognition of how how much legitimacy he has lost. The challenge now will be to work behind the scenes in a country where our influence is distinctly limited to try to bolster a transition to a regime capable of exerting some degree of influence over this chaotic country. Or else the radical jihadists, who had appeared irrelevant just a few weeks ago, could stage a worrisome comeback.