One of the worst-case scenarios looming over the West and moderate Muslims in Arab countries is that extremist groups could hijack the current wave of pro-democracy revolutions or otherwise take advantage of the unrest to expand their footprints and strengthen their operational capabilities. Nowhere are those fears better-founded than in Yemen, where conditions have for years made the country a prime candidate to succeed Afghanistan as a base of operations for al-Qaida.
While an outcome that benefits al-Qaida is far from assured, there are strong reasons to believe this is a plausible scenario and clear factors that would make such an outcome extremely dangerous for the West.
Like Afghanistan in the 1990s, Yemen presents some of the ideal conditions for al-Qaida to establish a major presence. In fact, the country is already home to a few hundred al-Qaida operatives. Unlike Afghanistan, however, Yemen is not located in a remote region of Central Asia. Instead, its geographical position makes it an ideal base from which to create havoc in the region and beyond. Standing at the mouth of the Red Sea, Yemen overlooks a narrow and easy-to-disrupt choke point for maritime commerce between Asia and the Mediterranean. Its location on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula makes it a pivotal point for the flow of goods, including oil, between East and West, as well as for the movement of people and ideology throughout the Middle East. If Yemen became a place where al-Qaida can operate freely, it would present an even greater threat than Afghanistan did, and certainly a far more serious one than Gadhafi's Libya, another country where the West decided to take military action.