Ali Abdullah Saleh is the longest-serving dictator in the Middle East after Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. And Yemen, the country that Saleh runs, has been a home to al Qaeda for almost as long.
"The Yemenis have been at the heart of al Qaeda before anyone even knew there was an al Qaeda," says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. The 9/11 Commission report, he points out, concluded that the very first attack supposedly inspired by Osama bin Laden -- on a hotel in Aden, Somalia, that housed U.S. troops in 1992 -- was likely launched from Yemen.
All of which may help explain why some U.S. diplomats, intelligence and counterterrorism officials are not likely to be especially panicked by reports that Saleh has agreed to step down after 30 days.
How much worse can it really get? While it is true that Saleh has been a U.S. ally, he has been a difficult and not especially effective one. "We have had to rely on our own people and others in the region more than the Yemeni" intelligence services, says one U.S. official familiar with the relationship.
Most recently, it was the Saudis who tipped off U.S. authorities to the two package bomb plots originating in Yemen last fall. "I think we probably will have about the same level of cooperation based on the same level of capacity" if Saleh leaves, Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told National Journal on Saturday. She said that Saleh's regime has often tried to cooperate, but "sometimes they simply don't have the capability to do what we're asking them to do."
Still, Saleh's possible departure would leave an already chaotic, quasi-failed state even more so. Yemen suffers from crushing unemployment that the CIA estimates put as high as 35 percent, chronic civil war, an acute water shortage -- and oil output expected to dry up in less than a decade.
"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," as the Yemen-based offshoot of the Al Qaeda is called, is part of what officials describe as the "core" of the global terrorist organization. In recent years, U.S. counterterrorism officials have monitored frequent communication between al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Yemen.
U.S. officials fear at least short-term counterterrorism setbacks as one Arab dictator after another faces ouster. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Saleh have all been harsh in cracking down on the Islamist radicals -- and now Saleh appears on the verge of joining the other two in an unceremonious exit from power.
One Islamist radical, American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, holed up secretly in Yemen, expressed confidence recently that even if the outcome in these countries is not an Islamist government, "our mujahideen brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Muslim world will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation."
But in the longer run some experts in the region hope that the departure of autocrats like Saleh will end the social stalemate and create possibilities for reform. In a statement Saturday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stopped short of expressing an opinion about the day's developments, merely taking note of "press reports regarding President Saleh's acceptance" of a proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council to leave office in 30 days. The GCC had been acting in coordination with Washington in gently trying to nudge Saleh from office.
Bodine cautioned, however, that the proposal calls for a two-year transition, and a lot can happen in the interim. "Ninety percent of me says he is going to leave," she says. "But I would never underestimate Ali Abdullah Saleh and his political instincts on trying to stay at least until 2013, which is when his duly elected turn is over."