President Ali Abdullah Saleh, although badly wounded, plans to return to Yemen on July 17 to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of his ascent to power.

The United States has contributed to the international pressure for Saleh to agree to a peaceful and speedy transition of power in Yemen, but the political process has stalled due to his refusal to compromise and prolonged absence after being wounded in an assassination attempt.

As Sana’a is thrown into political turmoil, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has made use of the regime’s focus on suppressing anti-government protests in the northern capital as a tactical diversion for its strategic takeover of southern Yemen. AQAP’s ability to establish strongholds reflects the security forces’ struggle to subdue the militants.

As Yemen’s central government deteriorates, Islamic militants have gathered strength, even managing to break convicted terrorists out of prison to join their ranks. The situation is a serious concern for the United States, which has been targeted by the terrorist group at home and abroad. If AQAP succeeds in turning Yemen into a safe haven, it would pave the way for more viable attacks against Western targets and interests, emerging as one of the most serious terrorist threats in the near future.

Yemen is on the brink of state failure as the political crisis has engendered an economic and humanitarian crisis. The U.S. is Yemen’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, but even the $180 million aid package has not been enough to stave off Yemen’s economic meltdown. The Arab Spring offers a chance for Yemen to build a new government that will be more effective in responding to the needs of the Yemeni people. However, such reforms would require time, which Yemen lacks.

If something is not done soon, the area could become a Taliban-like mini-state ruled by Sharia law, and the Yemeni state would lose its revenues from the port city of Aden, which houses one of Yemen’s two oil refineries. Since AQAP in Yemen has teamed up with al-Shabaab in Somalia, the geographic location of the two safe havens would give the groups the capability to disrupt shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, an important route for oil exports, causing even more economic mayhem.

As the Yemeni government occupies itself with fighting protestors, its already limited counterterrorism operations have halted. The country’s American-trained counterterrorism unit has not even been deployed to southern Yemen. To protect the United States’ interests, the Obama Administration recently approved the use of armed drones over Yemen to hunt for terrorists. It is expected that CIA-operated Predators will minimize the loss of innocent life—a positive change from the Yemeni security forces’ clashes with the militants, which seem to harm more civilians than insurgents.

However, even if these demands are met, any reforms by the regime will have little immediate effect on the AQAP’s gains. Yemen must focus on building a national consensus that will restore law and order and facilitate economic development in order to minimize the political, economic, and sectarian strife that AQAP feeds off of.

The United States should vigilantly remain engaged in easing the transition to a new government and cooperating with it to combat AQAP. America cannot afford to let this formidable terrorist group gain a safe haven from which they can hold our national security hostage.