Washington: Arab unrest is shaking the foundations of US counter-terror efforts that have long relied on spy agencies under authoritarian regimes to help fight Islamist militants.
With popular protests toppling rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening leaders in Yemen and elsewhere, US intelligence agencies are struggling to adjust to a radically changed landscape, US officials, former intelligence officers and experts say.
The United States for years has counted on Arab allies to back up its diplomatic and security interests, enlisting their help to combat al Qaeda with harsh tactics and interrogations.
But the political wildfire spreading across the region means US spy services will have to deal with new intelligence chiefs more wary of Washington and more reluctant to cooperate on covert projects that might be unpopular with their citizens.
"The immediate effect, there's no question, is that a lot of relationships which we have built over the years to fight al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists are over," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer.
Key figures who became trusted partners for American intelligence services such as Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former spy chief, are now gone and their successors will likely be less willing to do Washington's bidding, said Riedel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a conservative Washington think-tank.
US officials are most alarmed at the fallout from upheaval in Yemen, where al Qaeda has already exploited a violent power struggle between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents.
"The focus of Yemeni intelligence is not on al Qaeda anymore, it's on surviving and figuring out who's going to be the next boss," Riedel said.
Anxious to see an end to protracted unrest, President Barack Obama's administration has dropped its support for Saleh, urging him to peacefully hand over power.
Even if some semblance of stability is restored in Yemen, al Qaeda will have emerged stronger, raising the threat of another attack on Western targets by the network's affiliate there, Riedel said.
"Their safe haven, their sanctuary is probably going to be safer and bigger when this is all over than it is now.”
"And that means the threat not only to the US but to Europe is going to go up as well," he said.
A US official acknowledged that the turmoil offered "opportunities" for al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, which has tried to blow up an airliner and cargo planes bound for US cities.
"Our concerns are particularly acute in Yemen" said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But while unrest had made working with Yemeni intelligence more difficult, the official said cooperation had not "shut down".
The United States also had the means to go after extremists without having to rely on other intelligence services, he said.
"Counter-terrorism agencies also have capabilities to act on their own. So no one should think that the United States and our allies are totally dependent on liaison relationships to prosecute the fight against al Qaeda and its militant allies," the official said.
The CIA has carried out drone strikes on terror suspects in Yemen and on a much larger scale in Pakistan.
Though political upheaval may have disrupted US counter-terrorism work in the short term, some senior officials -- including Defence Secretary Robert Gates -- say that in the long run genuine democratic change could undercut the appeal of extremist groups that have thrived off of government repression.
The juggernaut of popular revolts in the region has yet to seriously affect Saudi Arabia, arguably America's most important ally on the counter-terrorism front.
But relations are strained amid Saudi anger over the Obama administration's decision to abandon its support of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down in February after mass street protests.
The political earthquake in the Middle East will likely mark the end of an era for US power in the region and curtail the reach of American intelligence agencies, said Michael Desch, co-director of the University of Notre Dame's international security program.
"Part of the reality of the new world that we're moving in to is we've got to recognise the limits of our influence," Desch said.
First Published: Sunday, April 10, 2011, 09:52