WASHINGTON - The US is worried that the continuing unrest in Yemen could fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants there and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, the State Department's counterterror coordinator said Tuesday.
Daniel Benjamin said insurgents in Yemen are trying to take advantage of the turmoil in their country, are operating more in the open and have been able to acquire and hold more territory. And, he said there are growing concerns that AQAP will be able to acquire more weapons, particularly in areas where there is chaos.
But Benjamin says he is hopeful that counterterrorism efforts will continue as the political transition moves along and a new government takes hold in Yemen.
"Counterterrorism cooperation is not about one man," Benjamin told reporters.
And while he said the US doesn't know what the next government in Yemen will look like, and "there has been some distraction because of the political turmoil," he added that the US believe that cooperation will grow under the new leaders.
He said the US has been in talks with the acting president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
US strikes against the Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have intensified, but the group is considered the most immediate terror threat to America.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly injured in a recent attack and is in Saudi Arabia. He and opposition party rulers are moving slowly toward a transition of the government.
There have been consistent reports of connections between AQAP in Yemen and al-Shabab across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. And those could deepen if the Yemeni government loses more control of its coastal regions.
The waters are already thriving regions for pirates, who take over commercial ships and hold them for ransom. That money, said Benjamin, is making its way into terrorists' hands, although the relationship between the pirates and the insurgents is murky.
"We know that militants have shaken pirates down," he said. "And if that results in money being in terrorist pockets, that's bad news ... If you ask most of the pirates right now, they would consider the terrorists to be parasites who are not helping them in a constructive way."