BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 13 (UPI) -- A U.N. envoy warned that al-Qaida is making "alarming" gains in Yemen after seizing several southern towns but it's also resurgent in Iraq and North Africa despite U.S. airstrikes that are picking off its leaders.
The Sunni Muslim organization is also reported to be rearing its head in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and even Ethiopia amid speculation that it's forging an alliance of convenience with Shiite Iran, with whom it has had a mystifying relationship for the last decade.
The warning about al-Qaida's advances in southern Yemen, particularly since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was driven from office after 33 years in power by a pro-democracy uprising, was delivered to the U.N. Security Council Friday in a confidential briefing.
The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the report, quoted special envoy Jamal Benomar as saying the scale of recent attacks by the jihadist group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, "serves as a stark reminder of the security threat posed by al-Qaida."
He said jihadist fighters have escalated operations against government forces, killing up to 185 soldiers in an assault March 4 in southern Abyan province, since Saleh's U.S.-backed successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was sworn in Feb. 25 pledging to crush the jihadists.
More alarming was a March 1 al-Qaida attack on a "security team" of U.S. troops in the port city of Aden, the southern capital.
The jihadists claimed they killed a CIA officer. The Pentagon denied that but confirmed the attack on U.S. personnel.
The admission that U.S. forces are operating on the ground, amid U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida leaders, was a major revelation and underlined how U.S. involvement in that conflict is escalating.
There's been no official announcement in Washington that ground troops are in Yemen, let alone that U.S. forces have recently been reinforced, as AQAP claims.
Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly ruled out deploying American troops there.
That fact that this doesn't seem to be the case emphasized the administration's concerns the al-Qaida threat is increasing even as Washington claims the jihadists are on the run following the loss of key commanders in U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan.
It was fears that al-Qaida would become a major power in Yemen that prompted Washington to broker the replacement of Saleh, considered an unreliable ally prepared to make deals with the jihadists.
Another disturbing factor is that AQAP, largely made up of Yemenis and Saudis, has been reinforced by veteran fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
This has coincided with other events, such as the proliferation of plundered weapons from the fallen Libyan regime across North Africa that have fallen into the hands of Islamists and other insurgents.
Libyan arms are reported to have reached Bedouin fighters linked to al-Qaida in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, posing a threat to the post-Mubarak elite in Cairo as well as Israel.
Al-Qaida thrives in political turmoil and fears are growing in North Africa that the region, convulsed by the pro-democracy revolutions of the Arab Spring, faces jihadist turbulence in the months ahead.
In Iraq, al-Qaida, badly mauled by the Americans in recent years, has been given a new lease on life now that U.S. forces have withdrawn.
The dictatorial inclinations of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his heavy crackdown on the Sunni minority have re-energized Sunni jihadists who've killed 250 people, mainly Shiites, in recent weeks.
Al-Qaida fighters are reported to be infiltrating strife-torn Syria via Lebanon and Iraq to join the uprising against the minority Alawite regime in Damascus and take revenge for four decades of repression against the Sunni majority.
In Lebanon, where jihadists fought -- and lost -- a 4-month battle against the army in 2007, al-Qaida cells are reported to be increasing as Sunnis brace for conflict with the majority Shiites in Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati confirmed Monday that the army had uncovered a cell within its ranks.
All this indicates that al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri of Egypt, may be redirecting the network's energies less on the United States but toward the "near enemy," the pro-Western regimes in the Muslim world.
This has always been his primary target, despite the slain Osama bin Laden's obsession with "the far enemy."