The United States quickly concluded that the prisoners must have had inside help. The odds of them digging 50 yards from a prison cell to the women's bathroom of a neighboring mosque were simply too great. The prison, after all, was run by the PSO, the same organization that had produced Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, the Guantánamo Bay detainee who had once tipped Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri off to a traitor within their ranks. Analysts at the CIA and FBI could only guess at the extent of the conspiracy. We don't know "how many people were involved," one official admitted. Some in Washington suggested that the prison break might be Saleh's response to the aid cuts four months earlier. Others speculated that sympathetic guards had simply ignored evidence of digging.
Regardless of who was behind the jailbreak, al Qaeda was once again a substantial threat and over the coming months the United States was forced to redirect its attention and aid dollars to Yemen. The Bush administration made plans to reinstate Yemen to the MCC. But the rehabilitation was short lived. In October 2007, Saleh announced that he had struck a deal with Jamal al-Badawi, one of the escapees and a main suspect in the USS Cole attack seven years earlier, which had killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Shocked that Yemen would release someone who had killed American sailors and was on the FBI's most wanted list, Bush dispatched his top counterterrorism adviser, Frances Townsend, to Yemen. In a meeting at his winter residence in Aden, Saleh tried to reassure Townsend. Don't worry about Badawi, he told her. "He is under my microscope." Over lunch, Saleh explained that he had been communicating with Badawi for months-information he had not previously shared with his American allies. Two weeks ago, Saleh continued, he had personally met with the fugitive for a frank discussion. "Badawi promised to give up terrorism and I told him that his actions damaged Yemen and its image," Saleh said. "He began to understand."
Townsend listened tight-lipped as Saleh described the deal as a sort of house arrest. Yes, Badawi was living and working on his farm outside Aden, but the government was monitoring him closely. He won't commit any more crimes, Saleh pledged.
Saleh's promises convinced no one, and back home on the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani seized on the incident and began calling for Yemen to stop siding with terrorists: "As a first step, I urge the U.S. government to cancel the more than $20 million in aid scheduled to be delivered to Yemen." Days later the United States did just that, suspending Yemen from the MCC a second time.
Once again, U.S. funding to Yemen dipped in punishment. But 2008 was also the year al Qaeda first issued Sada al-Malahim, its online magazine of propaganda and religious justification, and in September a seven-man cell launched a brazen early-morning attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. Only the quick thinking of a local Yemeni security contractor, who lowered a metal drop bar in front of the speeding car moments before he was shot and killed, saved the embassy from being breached. Instead of exploding into the embassy's front gate, which would have allowed five gun-wielding attackers into the compound, the car detonated on the street near a line of Yemenis seeking visas. On the campaign trail in the United States, then Democratic nominee Barack Obama told reporters that the United States had to do more in Yemen. Once more, U.S. money and aid began flowing to Saleh and his family in Yemen's security services.
After inheriting Yemen's aid rollercoaster, the Obama administration soon established a new high in 2009 and then again in 2010 -- until popular protests forced the United States to cut funding and abandon Saleh altogether in 2011. Earlier this year, when Hadi, Saleh's long-time vice president, took over as part of a shortsighted political deal that gave Saleh immunity, the United States restarted its aid package to Yemen.
For the third year in a row, the U.S. set a new high in aid to Yemen -- this year it is $337 million -- and for the third year in a row AQAP set a new high with the number of fighters within its ranks. Current estimates range from 1,000 to a few thousand.
After more than a decade of on-again, off-again aid to Yemen, the al Qaeda branch in Yemen is stronger than it was on September 11, 2001. The money the United States has spent in Yemen has enriched dozens and the missiles it has fired into the country have killed hundreds -- and yet AQAP continues to grow.