TEL AVIV – While the U.S. Navy buildup off the coast of Yemen has largely been seen as a response to Iran’s meddling in that country, there may be a second significant threat the U.S. military deployment is intended to counter.

With the Yemeni regime in tatters and a Saudi-led coalition bombing Iranian-backed Houthi rebels advancing across Yemen, the dangerous Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has taken advantage of the chaos and has quickly seized control of strategic Yemeni sites.

Now AQAP seems more poised than ever to fulfill one of its major goals in the region – attacks off the coast of Yemen that could halt the critical transport of oil.

While AQAP is a threat to both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, any U.S. action against the group in Yemen could indirectly aid the Iranian-supported Houthi insurgency seeking to take control of Yemen. That insurgency is partially hampered by AQAP’s own advances in the country.

Pentagon officials announced Monday the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has moved off the coast of Yemen to thwart Iranian weapons convoys headed to the country to help to Houthi insurgency.

Highlighting a possible Iran-U.S. confrontation while the Obama administration is attempting to broker a deal with Tehran, the Roosevelt is reportedly tracking a convoy of Iranian ships currently heading to the Gulf of Aden, according to two defense officials speaking to USA Today on condition of anonymity.

While the media has largely focused on the Houthi insurgency as the main focus of the U.S. Navy deployments, the Pentagon is also deeply concerned about the Bab al-Mandab gateway off Yemen’s coast, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. More than 3 million barrels of oil are shipped daily to Europe, the United States and Asia via the gateway.

Indeed, the Pentagon announcement of the Roosevelt’s deployment also stated that in recent days the U.S. Navy “has increased its presence in this area as a result of the current instability” and that “the purpose of these operations is to ensure the vital shipping lanes in the region remain open and safe.”

AQAP advances

Since the downfall of the Yemeni regime and the Saudi-backed strikes targeting Houthi rebels in Yemen, AQAP has quickly moved in to grab strategic territory, advances that could be used to springboard attacks on freighters transporting oil off the coast of Yemen.

Last week, AQAP fighters reportedly took control of a seaport and an oil terminal in southern Yemen.

The terrorist group last week also seized control of an airport in the southeastern provincial capital of Mukalla.

“The military unit in charge of security at the facility withdrew without resisting” al-Qaida fighters, an airport official told the BBC.

In another dangerous development, Yemeni security officials told the media last week that AQAP raided government forces at a massive weapons depot in Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest eastern province where al-Qaida is consolidating its control. According to the reports, AQAP seized dozens of tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers and small arms in the raid.

Al-Qaida’s plan: Shut down global shipping traffic

Closing global oil traffic off Yemen’s coast has been a longtime goal of al-Qaida’s Yemeni franchise.

Al-Qaida strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, deemed by CNN as “the most dangerous terrorist you’ve never heard of,” defined Yemen’s water gateways as a main target and even described how to disrupt global shipping using mines, terrorist operations and weapons.

Al-Suri decreed: “On the Earth, there are five (5) important straits, four of them are in the countries of the Arabs and the Muslims. The fifth one is in America, and it is the Panama Canal.”

He continued:

These straits are: 1. The Strait of Hormuz, the oil gate in the Persian Gulf. 2. The Suez Canal in Egypt. 3. The Bab el Mandib between Yemen and the African continent. 4. The Gibraltar Strait in Morocco. Most of the Western world’s economy, in terms of trade and oil, passes through these sea passages. Also passing through them are the military fleets, aircraft carriers and the deadly missiles hitting our women and children. … It is necessary to shut these passages until the invader campaigns have left our countries.

Al-Qaida in Yemen has a history of targeting international shipping in and near the Gulf of Aden.

In October 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers while refueling in the Aden port, killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring 39.

Ten months earlier, al-Qaida attempted to attack the guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans in the same port.

In 2002, the terrorist group bombed the French MV Limburg freighter, killing one crew member and injured 12.

With additional research by Joshua Klein.

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