Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is gaining territory in Yemen following turmoil caused by the Houthi rebels' takeover from the pro-Western government last fall, according to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
“You see them making gains on the ground there as they try to take territory [and] seize territory,” Carter said at a press conference in Japan on Wednesday.
Carter said the terrorist group, which officials have deemed the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate to the U.S., poses a “serious” threat to the U.S.
“The terrorism threat to the West, including the United States, from AQAP is a longstanding and serious one,” Carter said.
“AQAP is a group that we're very concerned with as the United States because, in addition to having other regional ambitions and ambitions within Yemen, we all know that AQAP has the ambition to strike Western targets, including the United States,” he added.
President Obama’s counterterrorism efforts against the group, which was heavily reliant on partnering with the former government, have been disrupted by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels' takeover of Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, in October.
U.S. officials maintain that the U.S. still has the ability to conduct drone strikes in Yemen. But other efforts, such as training and partnering with Yemeni forces on the ground, have been effectively halted.
“We will keep combating [AQAP]. We obviously will change the way we do that in accordance with the circumstances there,” Carter said.
However, officials openly acknowledge U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the group have grown more difficult without a partner on the ground.
“Obviously, it's always easier to conduct counterterrorism operations when there is a stable government willing to cooperate in place; that circumstance now obviously doesn't exist in Yemen,” Carter said.
“That doesn't mean that we don't continue to take steps to protect ourselves; we have to do it in a different way, but we do and we are,” he added.
The U.S. evacuated its embassy in February after fighting between Houthis, AQAP and forces supporting the previous government grew more intense. The U.S. is currently supporting a Saudi-led military effort to drive back the Houthis, who are advancing in southern Yemen.
Last week, AQAP militants broke into and released hundreds of prisoners from a jail. The breakout risks reconstituting their ranks and undoing U.S. efforts to contain the group in Yemen.
Obama, as recently as September, had touted U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen as a model for the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
However, critics say his “light footprint” strategy, which relies on a small presence of U.S. special operations forces, drone strikes and partnered operations with Yemeni forces, has not worked.
“Obviously, we hope that order is restored to Yemen, not only for that reason but because there's a lot of suffering going on in Yemen as these fluid battles and these different groups go back and forth,” Carter said.