Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev, NOOR/Redux

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Local fighters guard a hospital wing partly destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Jaar, Yemen.

Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev, NOOR/Redux

Al Qaeda Threat in Yemen Greater Than Ever

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's stronghold in Yemen poses new danger to the West.

The conversation intercepted by U.S. intelligence last month was chilling: a conference call between Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's leader, and a dozen chiefs of his international affiliates, including Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden and the head of al Qaeda's arm based in Yemen.

Though short on specifics, the discussion, hinting at a major terrorist plot being planned against Western targets, set off alarms across the Middle East.

The U.S. government issued a terrorism alert and temporarily closed 19 embassies and consulates. Yemen's defense ministry heightened security around the Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden—the site of the 2000 terrorist attack against the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 American sailors.

The red alert served as a reminder of the resilience of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist organization that established itself in Yemen following a 2009 crackdown on the group in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Under the leadership of al-Wuhayshi, the group recruited heavily among impoverished tribes, gaining support and strength despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the U.S. in Yemen's counterinsurgency program and despite drone attacks that decimated AQAP's top leadership. (In September 2011 a missile fired from an unmanned aircraft killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the New-Mexico-born imam who had risen to become one of the group's top recruiters and spiritual leaders.)

In 2011, during the Arab Spring popular uprising that led to the downfall of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, al Qaeda took advantage of the political confusion and the breakdown of army discipline to seize control of two towns in Abyan Province east of Aden.

Militants Said to Be Everywhere

The militants declared the two towns the caliphates of Zinjibar and Jaar, imposed sharia, and drove tens of thousands of people to the relative safety of displaced centers in Aden.

During a visit to Aden for National Geographic shortly after al Qaeda's victories that year, I found the city gripped by fear: The terrorists were making occasional forays into the city to set up temporary checkpoints and launch hit-and-run attacks against the Yemeni police and army.

Yemen's Central Security Forces recovered from their 2011 humiliation with a spring 2012 offensive that seized back Zinjibar and Jaar, killed nearly 400 militants, and sent hundreds, if not thousands, fleeing to their mountain redoubts.

But "what the Yemeni government called the 'defeat of al Qaeda' became a victory," one Yemeni journalist who has covered the Islamists for a decade told me last week.

"Before, they were concentrated in certain areas, and surrounded by the army. But now they have spread out. They are everywhere."