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updated 2/6/2011 12:48:14 PM ET 2011-02-06T17:48:14

The unrest engulfing Arab streets and threatening authoritarian governments in the Mideast is complicating U.S. counterterrorism efforts, scrambling the volatile battleground against al-Qaida in Yemen and raising concerns about the durability of Egypt's stance against militants.

U.S. counterterrorism officials need to move quickly to firm up relationships with veteran Mideast intelligence and security services in the aftermath of momentous changes, experts say. Lingering confusion over who will take the reins of power could hamper instant decision-making in the short term.

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Over the longer term, will the U.S. be able to work as closely against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups if important allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh cede power to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood?

"Right now the situation is so fluid it's just about impossible to make any determinations about long-term repercussions," said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism deputy in the Clinton and second Bush administrations. "The counterterrorism community has to be cautious about even jumping six months ahead."

Uncertainty about whether the U.S. can depend on Arab allies to join against militants comes amid growing American concerns following a string of failed attacks plotted in Yemen and al-Qaida's home base inside Pakistan. Less reliance on Mideast partners could force the U.S. to strike back on its own there, if a future terrorist attack were to succeed.

"The next time American interests are attacked and there's a return address in Yemen, the U.S. may have to act unilaterally," said Christopher Boucek, an expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that continuing demonstrations in the Yemeni capital in Sana'a could led the country's security forces to focus more on protecting the government, giving breathing room to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, suspected in plots against the U.S. in recent months.

Some street protests have come from pro-democracy elements, Boucek said. Others have been stirred by Islamic fundamentalist and secessionist groups already arrayed against Saleh's government.

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In a sign of the mounting alarm about Yemen's role as a terrorist staging, President Barack Obama told Saleh on the phone this past week about the need for "forceful action" against the al-Qaida affiliate. Obama did praise "the significant reform measures" that Saleh ordered to defuse the protests.

Obama also took the unusual step of publicly chiding Saleh for releasing Abd-Ilah al-Shai, a sympathizer of the al-Qaida group who had been sentenced to five years for his ties with it. Al-Shai had met in 2009 with Anwar al-Awlaki, a fugitive militant cleric who is suspected by American authorities of involvement in the Christmas Day plot that year to bomb a Detroit-bound jet and the October 2010 scheme to send mail bombs on planes from Yemen to the U.S.

Saleh, who's kept power despite battling three separate insurrections, often has to wire-walk between U.S. officials pressing for more leeway to take the battle against al-Qaida and powerful Yemeni tribes suspicious of his dealings with the Americans. Diplomatic cables released this year by WikiLeaks described the gap between Saleh's public posturing and private utterances — telling top U.S. counterterror adviser John Brennan at one point that he would pretend that a series of U.S. airstrikes had been carried out by Yemeni forces.

"Saleh's good at dancing in the snake pit," said Juan Zarate, a former top Bush administration counterterror official who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The unrest he's dealing with now poses some dangers, but he's pretty adept at getting out of trouble."

Egypt once had to contend with its own breed of hardcore Islamic militants. But three decades of brutal repression by the country's security services — most recently led by new Vice President Omar Suleiman — largely eliminated them as a threat. The secretive Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization has been headed by al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri since 1991, but Egypt's secret police crushed the group, expelling al-Zawahri and imprisoning its members.

In a classified diplomatic cable written on April 13, 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, wrote that Cairo's "active opposition to Islamist terrorism and effective intelligence and security services makes Egypt an unattractive safe haven for terror groups, and there is no evidence to suggest there are any active foreign terrorist groups in the country."

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During the uprising last week, there were numerous reports that some Islamic Jihad inmates were among hundreds let out during a mass jailbreak. Egyptian authorities said they rounded up many of those who escaped, but it was not clear whether all of them were back in custody. "As long as the military and security apparatus is in control, I still don't see Egyptian militants as a real threat," Cressey said.

The greater concern in Egypt, Zarate said, is tending to the strong ties between American and Egyptian counterterrorism officials that both sides cultivated over the past three decades. "U.S. officials clearly want to shore up their relations with the security services to make sure our counterterrorism relations survive the changes," Zarate said. "They need to be prepared to tailor their relations as the structure changes. If Suleiman takes control, that means there are new top security people we need to deal with."

Some U.S. leaders worry that the likelihood that the fundamentalist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood — long ago locked out of power in Egypt — will wield power in a freer, decentralized government that might lead to a weakened stance against al-Qaida and other terror groups.

"My concern is their ties to terror groups and their adherence to (Islamic) Shariah law," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week. "Am I worried about the result that the Muslim Brotherhood might gain power? Yeah, I'm scared to death. But the option of holding off on democracy is not an option."

Counterterrorism experts say the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida are hardly joined at the hip. The groups have been foes for years, quarreling over ideological and tactical differences — often over the Brotherhood's willingness to work within political systems instead of toppling them violently. "They just don't like each other," Cressey said. "Al-Qaida sees itself as more militant, and they believe the Brotherhood isn't willing to take on the Egyptian security services."

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Egypt's toughest counterterrorism challenge ahead may come as U.S. officials are forced to work with a new government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking common ground against terrorist enemies even if the Islamic faction tries to distance Egypt from its neighbor, Israel. American political leaders have long fused counterterror aims with support for Israel, and contending with an altered Mideast landscape with rising Islamic factions could force hard choices.

"We'll have to struggle with this politically, especially as we go into an election year," said Phillip Mudd, a former CIA and FBI official who was deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and now is a senior adviser with Oxford Analytica, a consulting firm. "The tension is between the need to work with these groups to continue the fight against (al-Qaida) and other extreme elements and the possibility that they may go against our wishes when it comes to Israel. Europe is less political and more realistic when it comes to that tension but it may be more of a problem here."

Despite the likely tensions looming, Mudd and some other terrorism experts say the turbulence in Cairo, Sana'a and elsewhere in the Mideast and North Africa raises hopes that al-Qaida's momentum may be overtaken by democratic impulses.

"Al-Qaida sees themselves as revolutionaries," Mudd said. "But the rise of the pro-democracy protests on the Arab street might take the air out of the balloon in terms of their recruiting. It siphons off their youth recruits."

___

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: World reaction

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  1. Palestinian supporters of the Al-Tahrir Islamic party shout slogans in support of the protesters in Egypt who forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, as they march in a rally in Gaza City on Feb. 13. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his office on Feb. 13, in Jerusalem, Israel. The meeting comes following Netanyahu welcoming a pledge by Egypt's new military rulers to uphold Israel's 1979 peace treaty. (Pool / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Algerian protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Algiers, Algeria, Saturday, Feb. 12. Thousands of people defied a government ban on demonstrations and poured into the Algerian capital for a pro-democracy rally Saturday, a day after weeks of mass protests toppled Egypt's authoritarian leader. (Sidali Djarboub / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An Egyptian demonstrator wipes her eyes during a rally in Trafalgar Square, in central London Feb. 12. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Sawsan Selim, 13, left, and her brother, Ahmad, 10, right, both Egyptian-Americans living in Atlanta, flash peace signs during a celebration of the ousting of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak Saturday, Feb. 12, in downtown Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Amman

    Jordanian girls celebrate in front of the Egyptian embassy in Amman on Tuesday, Feb. 10. Egypt's military announced on national television it had stepped in to secure the country and promised protesters calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster that all their demands would soon be met. (Jamal Nasrallah / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Jakarta

    Indonesian protesters raise their fists and shout slogans during a protest outside the embassy of Egypt in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb. 8. (Mast Irham / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Amman

    A Jordanian protester holds a Jordanian national flag with a picture of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during a protest against President Hosni Mubarak in front of the Egyptian embassy in Amman, Feb. 8. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Calcutta

    Activists of the Socialist Unity Centre of India burn two effigies of Mubarak and President Barack Obama as they call for Mubarak to step down during a rally in Calcutta, India, Feb. 7. (Piyal Adhikary / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Istanbul

    Supporters of the pro-Islamic HAS Party march with a camel during a protest against Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in central Istanbul, Feb. 6. (Murad Sezer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bethlehem

    A worshipper attends a special prayer for the people of Egypt at the Roman Catholic Melkite Church in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Feb. 6. (Ammar Awad / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Los Angeles

    Two boys run with Egyptian flags at a protest against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif., Feb. 5. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ramallah

    A Palestinian protester sets ablaze a U.S. flag on Feb. 5 in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah during a demonstration in support of the anti-government protests in Egypt calling for an end to Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. (Abbas Momani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Berlin

    Egyptians living in Germany and their supporters hold a rally in Berlin on Feb. 5. (Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Puri, India

    People jog past a sand sculpture of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak created by the Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik on a beach in Puri in the eastern Indian state of Bhubaneswar on Feb. 5. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. London

    Protestors wearing masks depicting Arab leaders demonstrate in support of the Egyptian people in their fight to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in London on Feb. 5. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Zurich

    Demonstrators, some of them Egyptians living in Switzerland, rally in Zurich on Feb. 5. Around 300 demonstrators showed their solidarity with the opposition movements in Tunisia and Egypt. (Alessandro Della Bella / Keystone via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels

    Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Feb. 4. (Francois Lenoir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Istanbul

    A man holds a portrait of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak with the slogan "No you can't" during a protest against Mubarak's regime following Friday prayers at the Beyazit Square in Istanbul, Turkey, on Feb. 4. (Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tehran

    Hundreds of Iranians attend a protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to express their solidarity with the Egyptian people, in Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 4. (Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Jerusalem

    A Palestinian man watches news from Egypt on television inside his shop in Jerusalem's Old City on Feb. 3. (Bernat Armangue / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Cape Town

    South Africans and Egyptians demonstrate in solidarity with the struggle of the Egyptian people in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 4. (Nic Bothma / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Kuala Lumpur

    A demonstration against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in front of the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Feb. 4. (Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. London

    Demonstrators wave an Egyptian flag and yell slogans during a protest outside a Vodafone store in London on Thursday, Feb. 3. Mobile operator Vodafone accused the Egyptian authorities of using its network to send pro-government text messages to subscribers, as telecom firms became further embroiled in the crisis in Egypt where large gatherings of anti-government protesters are calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gaza City

    Palestinian Hamas supporters hold signs and Egyptian flags during a demonstration calling for the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak outside the Egyptian representative's office in Gaza City on Thursday, Feb. 3. (Adel Hana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Bucharest

    Members of the Egyptian community in Romania shout anti-governmental slogans and hold signs reading "Down with Mubarak" outside the Egyptian embassy in Bucharest on Feb. 3 during a protest asking for Mubarak to resign, and for democratic and non-violent reforms in Egypt. (Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Beirut

    Lebanese riot policemen clash with demonstrators during a rally supporting the ouster of Mubarak in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 3. (Wael Hamzeh / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Paris

    A demonstrator holds a paper that reads "Mubarak kills his people" during a protest in Paris on Feb. 3. Dozens of protestors gathered in a show of support for protests currently taking place in Egypt. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Tel Aviv

    Israeli-Arabs and Egyptians attend a demonstration close to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, to protest against the Egyptian government on Tuesday, Feb. 1. (Oliver Weiken / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. London

    Egyptians demonstrate outside the Egyptian embassy in London, Feb. 1. Egyptians in London gathered in solidarity with anti-government protesters in Egypt who are demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down. Similar protests occurred around the world. (Andy Rain / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Athens

    Protesters hold up an Egyptian flag during a demonstration in central Athens, Feb. 1. More than 200 Egyptian immigrants and Greek supporters gathered outside the Egyptian embassy in Athens in a peaceful protest. (Kostas Tsironis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Berlin

    Protesters rally in front of the foreign ministry in Berlin, Feb. 1. (Lukas Kreibig / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Amsterdam

    A girl joins hundreds of people protesting against the Egyptian president at the Dam Square in Amsterdam, Feb. 1. (Evert Elzinga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Bangkok

    A Thai anti-government "red shirt" protester holds a rock as he attends a protest in front of the Egyptian Embass in Bangkok, Feb. 1. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Philadelphia

    Dr. Gertrude Copperman and others demonstrate in support of the Egyptian people in Philadelphia, Jan. 31. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Tunis

    Tunisian students shout slogans during a demonstration in solidarity with Egyptian protesters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Jan. 31. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. New York City

    A man holds up a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a protest against his regime outside of the Egyptian mission to the United Nations in New York City, Jan. 31. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Morocco

    Moroccan demonstrators chant slogans during a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Rabat, Jan. 31. Morocco is watching nervously as other North African countries erupt in revolt, with warnings even from within the royal family that it will probably not be spared. (Abdelhak Senna / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Rome

    A demonstrator shouts slogans as others wave Egyptian flags during a protest in support of the Egyptian people, in central Rome, Italy, Jan. 31. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Jakarta

    Indonesian activists release doves during a protest in support of the Egyptian people in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 31. (Dita Alangkara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Seoul

    Egyptians living in South Korea and South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally denouncing Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's rule near the Egypt Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 31. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Houston

    Doaa Khedr, with her daughter, Maryam Ali, 1, protests along with others outside the Egyptian Consulate in Houston, Texas, Jan. 30. (Melissa Phillip / The Houston Chronicle via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Gaza

    Hamas militant Mohammed Abdil Hadi is greeted by his mother upon his arrival home in the southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 30. He had fled Cairo's Abu Zaabal prison as it was raided on Saturday by an Egyptian mob. Egypt closed its crossing with the Gaza Strip on Sunday as countrywide protests spread to the border area. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Dubai

    A stock market screen is seen at the Dubai Financial Market as stock markets in several Gulf countries dropped on mounting concerns over Egypt's future, Jan. 30. (Karim Sahib / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Los Angeles

    Protesters rally against Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak outside the Federal Building in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif., Jan. 29. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Atlanta

    Arny Soejoedi, 17, joined several hundred anti-Mubarak protesters in downtown Atlanta, Jan. 29. (Rich Addicks / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Washington

    A crowd chants in front of the White House in Washington, Jan. 29, demanding that Mubarak step down. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Beirut

    A Lebanese protester holds up a placard during a demonstration supporting Mubarak's ouster at the Egyptian embassy in Beirut, Jan. 29. (Wael Hamzeh / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Paris

    A man holds a banner reading "solidarity with Egyptian people, Mubarak murderer" during a demonstration near the Egyptian embassy in Paris, France, Jan. 29. (Tara James / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Gaza City

    Palestinians wait to fill petrol containers in Gaza. Gaza Strip residents flocked to petrol stations after clashes in neighboring Egypt hampered smugglers ferrying fuel supplies through tunnels that run under the border into the enclave, witnesses said. (Ahmed Zakot / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Damascus, Syria

    Syrian and Palestinian militants hold candles near the Egyptian embassy in Damascus to express support for Egyptian protesters, Jan. 29. (Youssef Badawi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Washington

    Amal Elbahi, originally from Cairo, speaks at a protest near the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, Jan. 29. Demonstrators held signs and chanted, demanding that Mubarak step down. They also criticized the Obama administration's response to the clashes in Egypt. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Mexico City

    Protesters hold signs that read "Out Mubarak" while standing outside Egypt's embassy in Mexico City, Jan. 29. (Stringer/mexico / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Cambridge, Mass.

    Protesters walk through Cambridge, Mass., as they protest against Mubarak and call for massive government reforms, Jan. 29. (Lisa Poole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Seattle

    Mohamed Sadek, who is from Egypt, but lives in Redmond, Wash., holds a sign comparing the number of U.S. presidents who have been in power while Egyptian president Hosni Mubarakat has been in office. Several hundred people gathered in downtown Seattle, Jan. 29, to show their support and solidarity for anti-government demonstrations in Egypt. (Ted S. Warren / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Palestinian supporters of the Al-Tahrir
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