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Yemen chaos puts uncertainty into Obama terror fight – or does it?

Yemen, home to Al Qaeda’s most potent and threatening branch, has for years worked closely with the US on counterterrorism efforts. But on Thursday, the country’s president, prime minister, and cabinet resigned.

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Houthi Shiite Yemeni wearing army uniforms stand atop an armored vehicle, which was seized from the army during recent clashes, outside the house of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Heavily armed Shiite rebels remain stationed outside the Yemeni president's house and the palace in Sanaa, despite a deal calling for their immediate withdrawal to end a violent standoff.

Hani Mohammed/AP

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Thursday’s resignation of the president, prime minister, and cabinet of Yemen deepens the uncertainty swirling around a cornerstone of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.

Yemen, home to Al Qaeda’s most potent and threatening branch, has for years worked closely with the United States on counterterrorism efforts and allowed the US to conduct drone strikes targeting Al Qaeda operatives.

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But now, that cooperation could be set back as sectarian turmoil of the variety that has engulfed Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other Arab countries threatens to expand and act as a boon to Islamist extremist forces like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The terrorist organization’s Yemeni branch has thrived on the country’s instability and the government’s inability to control large swaths of the nation.

Some recent reports claim that AQAP’s rival jihadist group, the Islamic State, is seeking to set up shop in Sunni tribal areas as it has in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

Collapse of the government Thursday followed several days of intense fighting in the capital, Sanaa, that left Houthi rebels in control of the city and Yemen’s pro-US president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, relegated to house arrest.

The turmoil in the capital this week had already prompted the Pentagon to position two ships in the waters off Yemen in the event of an evacuation of US diplomatic personnel.

The Shiite Houthi rebels are fierce enemies of the Sunni AQAP, a fact that has some counterterrorism experts speculating that a Houthi victory in Yemen need not gut the US counterterror campaign in the country.

But few Yemen experts believe that the Houthis’ success in Sanaa will put an end to the country’s instability and sectarian fighting. Sunni tribesmen in the eastern province of Marib, where AQAP has a strong foothold, have reportedly engaged in pitched battles with Houthi fighters. AQAP fighters have also attacked Houthi forces entering Sunni tribal areas.

The White House says the safety of US personnel in the country is its first priority, but deepening turmoil in a key ally in the fight against Islamist extremism can’t be too far down the priority list.

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It was just last September that Mr. Obama held up Yemen to the American people as the kind of partner the US works with to battle the forces of Islamist extremism without putting boots on the ground.

In a televised address in which he explained how he planned to defeat the Islamic State and other Islamist extremist threats, Obama said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen.”

Yet while drone strikes have taken out a number of AQAP leaders and operatives, battling the group has remained a work in progress. Just last week, the group that dispatched the ultimately unsuccessful underwear bomber who tried to bring down an airliner as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 issued a video in which it claimed that it planned and financed the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

Mr. Hadi’s resignation did little to clarify the country’s murky situation, with most political leaders expressing concerns about the days ahead. Prime Minister Khaled Bahah said in resigning his post that he didn’t “want to be a party to what is happening or will happen.” In a statement on his official Facebook page, he said he stepped down “to avoid being dragged into an abyss of unconstructive policies based on no laws.”

The Houthis are frequently likened to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group backed by Iran – although Houthi leaders deny they receive any material support from Tehran. Still, even the threat of an Iran-backed power next door has prompted Saudi Arabia to cut off aid to the financially strapped Yemen – and is instead funneling assistance to Yemen’s Sunni tribes, according to some reports.

Some Yemen experts say the US will have to face the reality of the Houthi rise in Yemen and work with the group. The priority, they say, must be Yemen’s stability and reestablishing a government with some semblance of control and legitimacy that continues on the path of counterterror cooperation.