Understanding Yemen’s Al Qaeda Threat
In tonight’s special report, Al Qaeda in Yemen, FRONTLINE travels deep into Yemen’s radical heartland to investigate how Al Qaeda and affiliated militants have seized control of parts of southern Yemen — and are winning some popular support.
Over the last few years, Yemen has emerged as the breeding grounds for some of the most high-profile plans to attack the U.S. homeland. But few understand how Yemen became Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) stronghold, or how America’s escalating war in the country is playing out on the ground.
FRONTLINE turned to 11 experts — diplomats, journalists working on the ground, academics, Yemeni activists and counterterrorism analysts — to understand the debates at the heart of these questions.
How Al Qaeda Grew in Yemen
Former Amb. Barbara Bodine
When I got there in 1997, there was already an Al Qaeda presence. We knew about it. The Yemenis knew about it. Everyone knew about it.
Numbers [are] always impossible to know, but these people were primarily foreign nationals. One of the best ways to describe the presence is that they were largely warehousing lower-level people in peripheral areas. They didn’t have an operational or leadership presence there in any sense. … To the extent that we knew — by methods I will not discuss — these people were largely unhappy, largely bored and spent most of their time trying to figure out how to get out [of Yemen].
The Yemenis were aware of them and not pleased, and were actually taking steps to the extent that they could find these guys that were foreign nationals, and pretty aggressively working to deport them. … The Yemenis were neither unaware or unconcerned, but it wasn’t a major issue.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t a major issue for us. At one point in 1998 or 1999, the Yemenis came to us and asked for a MOU [memorandum of understanding] on counterterrorism cooperation. All they really wanted were vehicles and radios. The security forces, one of their problems was that they had trouble getting to where the Al Qaeda people were, and they had a hard time [communicating]. So it was a pretty low-level kind of cooperation that they were asking for … and we turned them down.
Because it wasn’t a focus of our intention honestly.
After the African Embassy bombings, a request was sent out probably all over the world, but also to Yemen that if Osama bin Laden showed up, they would like the host government’s cooperation in arresting him and turning him over to us. The Yemenis made it very clear that if Osama bin Laden showed up: “Don’t worry; we will turn him over to you. We don’t want him. We’re not going to give him a safe haven. But can we cooperate on this larger issue of these warehouse guys in the country?” And that’s how that conversation came up. And the fear was that now we’ve got bigger fish to fry, and we’re really just not interested. So we didn’t. I thought at the time that probably wasn’t the best decision, but you don’t win every policy issue you raise. …
After 9/11, the Yemenis were very cooperative on counterterrorism, and I think the general assessment all the way up [to] our government is that by about 2004, we and the Yemenis had the conventional Al Qaeda problem reasonably under control.
We then took our eye off the ball [with] Iraq. The Yemenis also got very distracted by the Houthis [an armed movement in the North that fought Yemeni and Saudi Arabian forces between 2004 and 2010] and a few other things.
More importantly, Al Qaeda also changed its focus. You had that huge spike in terrorism in Saudi Arabia. That was 2004, 2005 when you had a couple of housing compounds blown up. It was the first time that Saudi Arabia felt the direct threat from Al Qaeda, and the Saudis, with our help, came on Al Qaeda very hard, very, very hard. Those that they did not capture or kill went across the border into Yemen. That’s when you start getting the toxic stew because what then started to happen is that the Saudis who came in had a different organizational skill, a different leadership skill. You had the prison break [in February 2006, when Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who would later go on to found AQAP, escaped from a Yemeni prison with 22 others]. On that one we missed it again. … It comes together and creates itself as AQAP, and that’s the game changer.
Former Amb. Edmund Hull
Given 9/11 and the history of Al Qaeda activity in Yemen prior to 9/11 — notably but not just the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 — countering Al Qaeda in Yemen was the clear priority during my tenure there
To do so, we adopted a broad strategy that linked security with development. Our motto — which the Yemenis adopted to a remarkable extent – was, “No development without security and no security without development.”
The initial blow against Al Qaeda was the  drone strike, which eliminated its chief, Abu Ali al Harithi [as well as an American citizen]. It was a “surgical” operation that entailed no collateral casualties, and it was done with the agreement of the Yemeni government.
However, what was particularly significant was the subsequent actions against Al Qaeda that eliminated it as a functioning organization were undertaken by the Yemenis themselves with assistance — training, equipment, intelligence, etc. — from the U.S. The Yemeni campaign notably had the support of the Yemeni people.
Also significant was that this security effort was accompanied by economic development work, particularly in Yemen’s remote areas where Al Qaeda was seeking to create a safe haven, and with political development, notably largely free and fair parliamentary elections and development of civil society.
Gregory D. Johnsen:
Among the escapees were Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who had been bin Laden’s personal secretary for four years in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, and Qasim al-Raymi. Together these two men rebuilt Al Qaeda in Yemen up from the ashes of its earlier defeat. Wuhayshi, who has been described as bin Laden’s “shadow” in the late 1990s, essentially used bin Laden’s blueprint from Afghanistan to resurrect Al Qaeda in Yemen. He also went to school on the failures of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and worked to limit Muslim civilian casualties in Yemen, which he believed was a key reason Al Qaeda had been defeated in those countries.
… As Al Qaeda grew and developed more of an infrastructure in Yemen in 2007 and 2008 it started to expand its targeting, moving from local targets to regional ones and finally to international ones. As you track the attacks and compare it to the group’s public statements a pattern emerges in which Al Qaeda sets itself a goal and then attempts to match its actions to its rhetoric.
… In 2009, Wuhayshi publicly welcomed several former Guantanamo Bay detainees into the organization and adopted the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), signifying greater regional and international ambitions as the group continued to attract new members. Later that year, Al Qaeda attempted to assassinate Muhammad bin Nayif, the Saudi prince in charge of counterterrorism and, of course, on Christmas Day it put a bomber on a plane to Detroit. Both operations failed, but the bombs hadn’t been detected
… What we know of the organization is far from complete, and indeed one has to be very careful about not reading too much into too little evidence. There is a great temptation to take the fractured pieces of evidence that bubble to the surface and construct a coherent narrative from all these disparate pieces.
That being said, what we do know suggests that Wuhayshi has constructed AQAP in a way that is designed to survive the loss of key cell leaders. He learned from the first phase of the war in Yemen in which the  drone strike that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi basically destroyed Al Qaeda in Yemen. To avoid that, Wuhayshi has appointed what he refers to as emirs, or commanders, to different regions of Yemen. These men are often tied by tribal or family connections to the area where they oversee. And like bin Laden, Wuhayshi gives his commanders a certain degree of operational flexibility, mimicking the philosophy of “centralization of decision making and decentralization of execution” that bin Laden preferred.
Al Qaeda and its local insurrection, the Ansar al-Sharia, gained ground quickly last year when security forces were engaged in the political battles between the Saleh regime and the opposition in Sana’a and Taizz. The military and security forces abandoned much of the south during the protests and left significant weaponry behind. Ansar al-Sharia benefitted tremendously by this, and many accused the Saleh regime of deliberately abandoning the south to Al Qaeda’s Ansar al-Sharia as a way of showing the international community that Saleh was the only person who could effectively rule Yemen. The alternative was Ansar al-Sharia. …
The Relationship between AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia
Ansar al Sharia, the local franchise of Al Qaeda Ghaith Abdul-Ahad visits in Ja’ar, was started last year to provide AQAP with foot soliders and a new image. Experts disagree about the exact relationship between the two groups.
Gregory D. Johnsen
… The first time we heard the name Ansar al-Sharia was in early 2011, when Adil al-Abab, AQAP’s chief cleric, announced that Ansar al-Sharia was the name Al Qaeda used to introduce itself to people in Yemen. Just as bin Laden realized that the name “Al Qaeda” had become in Arabic almost a byword for terror, so too did AQAP come to the conclusion that the name Al Qaeda had too much negative baggage associated with it.
Adopting the name Ansar al-Sharia has basically been a rebranding attempt. We know that Nasir al-Wuhayshi heads both AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. We know that the different emirs for Ansar al-Sharia accept the bay‘a or oath of allegiance on behalf of Wuhayshi. And we know that members claimed by Ansar al-Sharia are also claimed by AQAP.
The more one reads the material put out by AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia – from newsletters, “martyr” biographies, statements of responsibility and so forth – the clearer it becomes that the two are different faces of the same organization. This is not unprecedented in Yemen. In fact, in 2008 there was a similar debate over two names in Yemen, who in the end both turned out to be Al Qaeda. What we don’t know is whether everyone who self-identifies as Ansar al-Sharia would also identify as a member of AQAP.
… I believe — based on my reporting in and out of Yemen — that Ansar al-Sharia has been used by some elements of AQAP in a crude rebranding effort. I also believe that Ansar al-Sharia is not simply a thinly-veiled front for AQAP. One well-connected Yemeni analyst told me the majority of Ansar’s fighters are “angry tribesmen” out for “revenge” against the Yemeni government and the U.S. with a small core of AQAP people. A well-connected analyst who has close ties to Al Qaeda told me that was an exaggeration and that Ansar shares Al Qaeda’s main goals, but is an AQAP-led movement trying to build a flatter organization not tarnished by the Al Qaeda brand. Other — mostly Western — analysts say it is the same old AQAP, just a new name. Somewhere in the mix of all of that is the truth and the many truths.
Former Amb. Barbara Bodine
When [Ansar al-Sharia] first popped up, everyone … just kind of wrote them off as cover story for AQAP. I don’t think that we know still quite who they are. But I think what you’ve got is sort of the remnants of the Islamic Army of Aden and Abyan crowd. There is a traditional, anti-government, violent, extremist strain in Abyan that goes back decades and decades. … They’ve got some of their own agendas that are complimented and certainly support the Al Qaeda agenda, but they’re not exactly the same. And that’s why I’ve got this growing sense that what we’ve got is both a counterterrorism issue — AQAP attempts to blow up airplanes, blow up Saudi officials — if you want the traditional Al Qaeda agenda. And then you’ve got this Ansar al-Sharia that’s almost more of an emerging insurgency.
Now, Al Qaeda isn’t generally an insurgency organization. Look at them in Afghanistan; it was the Taliban who were the insurgents, not Al Qaeda itself. Their mandate is the rest of the world. I think in a sense, Ansar al-Sharia is almost a development of their own Taliban. And with that, you now end up with a dual threat that needs to be managed with two different sets of tools.
… If we could get the guys who really lead, really manage, really organize AQAP, if we were somehow able to get rid of them, I think Ansar al-Sharia would still be there. And you might even be able to make the case that if the Yemenis were able to get rid of Ansar al-Sharia, you might not necessarily get rid of AQAP. So they feed on each other. They support each other. They certainly are related, but they’re not identical.
The U.S.-Yemeni Partnership
While attention on the U.S.-Yemeni relationship often focuses on recently ramped up coordinated air strikes, the partnership that grew after 9/11 is much broader. “AQAP continues to be Al Qaeda’s most active affiliate, and it continues to seek the opportunity to strike our homeland,” John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said last month in a speech justifying how U.S. officials decide to use drone strikes to target suspected terrorists. Brennan — President Obama’s point man in Yemen — has made frequent public visits to the country over the last year, elevating the importance of America’s efforts to work with the Yemeni government in the war on Al Qaeda.
Former Amb. Barbara Bodine
In 2009, 2010, I think we were starting to do the smart thing, which was we were really going in and trying to train up the Yemeni capability. The Yemenis have always said, and I think they have been reasonably sincere, that they wanted to go after Al Qaeda, but they didn’t have the capability. They didn’t have the trucks and the radios in the late ’90s. They certainly didn’t have them in the mid-2000s to go after these guys. And we did start to change our approach, more to training Yemeni capabilities.
… They went out and shot at AQAP and got shot back at. We and some of our allies helped the Yemenis establish the National Security Bureau as kind of an internal intelligence apparatus that we could work with. We built up the Central Security Organization and their counterterrorism unit. We didn’t work with the Yemeni military very much because they’re just a fairly worthless organization. And so we redirected more toward Ministry of Interior forces, which was probably right.
After 9/11, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Washington and basically pledged his loyalty to the U.S. in the so-called “war on terror.” He seemed to take seriously the “You’re with us or the terrorists” line that was being pushed by President Bush and other members of that administration. Indeed, Yemen was among the early targets being considered by U.S. war planners right after 9/11, particularly because of the fact that the USS Cole had been bombed in October 2000, and many within the government were frustrated at what they saw as Yemen’s non-cooperation in bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice.
A little known fact is that the first drone strike we know of outside of Afghanistan was in fact in Yemen in November 2002. A number of known militants were killed, as was a U.S. citizen from Buffalo, NY. But the strike happened with little fanfare. Rather than declaring Yemen a battlefield in the global war, the Bush administration began building up counterterror units in Yemen that would be trained and supported by U.S. Special Forces and the CIA. These units operated under the command of President Saleh’s relatives and received a disproportionate amount of the U.S. military aid to Yemen. In theory, these forces were the most elite in the country, but what we have seen over the past six to eight years is that these forces have primarily been used for the defense of the regime and to fight the minority Houthis in the north and political opponents in the south of the country. Saleh played the U.S. like a piano on the counterterror issue. He realized it was a cash cow that also could benefit him politically.
In contrast, the conventional Yemeni military is underfunded and underarmed. Many of the soldiers I saw on the frontlines in Zinjibar in Abyan province appeared underfed and desperate. The U.S. and Saudis have provided air support in the south to the 25th Mechanized Brigade as well as delivering supplies via helicopter. But, in general, it is the Yemeni intelligence and counterterrorist units that receive the most U.S. aid, despite the fact that the Yemeni Army is taking the most casualties and is indeed on the front lines.
A lot of focus has been recently placed on the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, but that is just one aspect of the unilateral U.S. war in Yemen. The U.S. has used cruise missiles and cluster bombs. It has fired missiles from submarines and other vessels based of the Yemeni coast. JSOC has had boots on the ground in Yemen “painting” targets and tracking specific people using signals intelligence. The CIA has a limited number of operatives on the ground. And recently, the U.S. resumed training of Yemeni forces.
What kind of coordination and cooperation takes place between the U.S. and Yemen today? How has that changed since President Hadi came to power in February?
Hadi is far more accommodating to the U.S. than Saleh ever was. He cannot and does not stand up to the U.S. Saleh was far more clever, a much better chess player and had perfected the art of manipulation of the U.S., Yemeni tribes and political forces in Yemen. Saleh played the U.S. State Department off the CIA, the CIA off the military, the military off the White House and on and on. The U.S. always believed it was smarter than Saleh and often was proved painfully wrong when it came to Yemeni affairs. Hadi is not allowed to say no to anything Washington demands and is not powerful enough to manipulate the situation in the way Saleh did. Saleh still wields quite a bit of influence in Yemen. But I would describe Hadi as a temporary, malleable figure that is very acceptable to the U.S.
Gregory D. Johnsen
The airstrikes have increased dramatically since Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi was sworn in as president in late February. Hadi has a very shallow base of support within Yemen and as a result he is incredibly dependent on strong U.S. and international backing to offset what he lacks domestically. Hadi and the U.S. appear to be moving down the road toward a mutually dependent relationship. The U.S. needs Hadi to be able to do what it wants in Yemen, which is primarily targeting Al Qaeda, while Hadi needs strong and unambiguous support from the U.S., which he has received, in order to offset the lack of strong base of support domestically.
You’ve raised concerns about where the millions of dollars of aid the U.S. has given to Yemen each year over the last decade has gone. Explain why.
The Saleh regime used the issue of terrorism as a cash cow. Washington was like a crack dealer that got him hooked on it, and he would do anything to keep it flowing. He played both sides of the game—sometimes allowing Al Qaeda forces to break out of prison, seize territory or conduct attacks, so that he could go to the U.S. and say, “We need more money and weapons and training.” Then, when the U.S. started to get pissed off with his lack of action, he’d suddenly have his forces carry out some series of raids or strikes.
It was kind of shocking how cleverly he played the U.S. The bottom line in Yemen is true in many countries: the U.S. appears to be supporting a corrupt, undemocratic regime, while the country implodes and its people are left to fend for themselves. The message the U.S. has sent to the Yemeni people is: We see how bad life is for you, but, but, but, terrorism terrorism, terrorism. And terrorism!
Former Amb. Barbara Bodine
The argument that sometimes gets made is that for years the U.S. was giving money to Yemen for counterterrorism — hundreds of millions of dollars a year — and that there was incentive for Yemen not to fight this problem and to take that money and allow terrorism to fester. What do you think about that?
I think that’s garbage. I think that is a remarkably cynical assessment. The Yemenis were aware that Al Qaeda was a threat to them, that if nothing else, it impeded economic development, it impeded investment, it impeded a lot of other stuff.
I do think that what did happen — and I give us a lot of responsibly for this — is that our conversation became almost wholly about Al Qaeda, if you look at what we were giving in terms of economic development, if you look at what we were doing in terms of governance. In the late ’90s, we had I think a far more complex and balanced relationship. By the time you get to the late 2000s, the only thing we’re talking about is Al Qaeda. The only thing we will give money for is Al Qaeda. And if you’re the Yemenis, if that’s the only conversations the Americans are going to have, if it’s the only way they’re going to pay you, provide you any assistance, and they don’t want to talk to about anything else, they don’t want to do anything else. That’s the conversation you have. I think we’re the ones who set up that behavior pattern.
… The fact that John Brennan [chief counterterrorism adviser to President Obama] has been the Yemen desk officer for three and half years, that the only person that you see here who visits is John Brennan, tells the Yemenis that’s the only conversation Americans want to have. Now I don’t think that Al Qaeda going as a way of keeping the pipeline going, because the money that was coming in from us wasn’t doing anything else. It wasn’t like this was a way of getting our attention, getting other money for things they felt was important. And I think they would have loved to have gotten rid of Al Qaeda. I think we’re overstating how much we gave them, we’re talking about, honestly hundreds of millions of dollars. …
America’s Ramped Up Targeted Killing Program
On Nov. 3, 2002, the U.S. carried out the first known drone strike in Yemen in a barren stretch of the Ma’rib desert. The strike targeted and killed the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, as well as five suspected members of Al Qaeda, including an American citizen. It would be another seven years before the U.S. targeted Yemen in another air strike, but soon afterward the U.S. ramped up a campaign of air and drone strikes carried out by the CIA, the military and others that have come to define President Obama’s policy in Yemen.
Several factors have led to the increase in AQAP’s manpower necessitating an increase in drone operations. First, the flow of Yemeni and Saudi foreign fighters to Iraq decreased substantially starting about 2008. Potential Yemeni Al Qaeda recruits as well as foreign fighters returning from Iraq bolstered AQAP’s ranks.
Second, Saudi Arabia effectively destroyed the first iteration of AQAP by the end of 2006, sending remnants of this first wave into Yemen.
Third, Al Qaeda — prior to bin Laden’s death — identified Yemen as an alternative safe haven to Pakistan and likely began redirecting operatives to Yemen. Finally, after bin Laden’s death in 2011, I would assume many operatives located in Afghanistan and Pakistan saw Yemen as the next opportunity for pursuing jihad. In total, the migration of Al Qaeda operatives to Yemen has brought with it increased targeting from drone strikes in recent months.
On the counterterrorism side, drone resources and intelligence support previously dedicated to the fight against Al Qaeda in Pakistan have likely been shifted to Yemen after the death of bin Laden, the successful dismantling of Al Qaeda’s networks in Pakistan and the Pakistani government’s restrictions on the use of drones beginning in 2011. …
Finally, I believe recent increases in drone engagements suggest the U.S. has finally dedicated enough intelligence resources in Yemen to generate sufficient targeting information to engage AQAP on a more regular basis.
Which different agencies or groups carry out the drone and air strikes in Yemen today? Who is in charge?
The answer to this question has shifted over the past two and a half years that President Obama has been authorizing strikes in Yemen. The first known strike Obama authorized was the Dec. 17, 2009 cruise missile strike in al-Majala in southern Yemen. That killed dozens of women and children. It was famously covered up by the Yemeni military, which claimed it had conducted the operation. The Wikileaks cables proved that false, as did the photos and videos of the U.S. cruise missiles and cluster bombs, conveniently still bearing their “Made in the United States” labels. When I was there in January, the missiles were still laying out in the open.
Since that strike, both the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA have carried out strikes in Yemen. And there has been tension between those entities over who is in control of Yemen ops. It seems that both are striking Yemen now.
The drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan — both U.S. citizens — last September was reportedly the CIA. The strike that killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old U.S. citizen son, two weeks later was, I understand, a JSOC hit. It remains unclear who the target was in that strike and has caused a lot of anger in Yemen. …
Where does the U.S. get intelligence to target AQAP leaders or members of Ansar al-Sharia? …
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the U.S. has relied on faulty, sometimes blatantly false, intelligence provided by the Yemeni government. In some cases, there is evidence that suggests the U.S. has killed opponents of the regime based on intelligence given to the U.S. saying the target was Al Qaeda, when in fact they were tribal people opposed to the government.
There are many villages with unexploded cluster bombs just waiting for innocent children to touch them. And kids have been killed by these munitions days after the strikes were supposedly over. The advent of the so-called “signature strikes” [or targeting groups of men whose identities are not necessarily known] is a great indicator of how bad the U.S. intel is. The idea that you have to make guesses based on patterns of life, rather than actual human intel that result in killing people is a harrowing development.
The U.S. has repeatedly said it has believed it killed various “senior” members of AQAP, but most of its leadership is still alive. One senior AQAP leader has been killed at least a half dozen times by U.S. media outlets and is still alive. The U.S. has had some “successes,” such as Awlaki and Fahd al-Quso. But, I also believe a big part of the problem here is that journalists uncritically report that “suspected militants” were killed. What does that phrase even mean? And how do reporters know who died? Because the U.S. or Yemeni government told you? That logic is a major violation of rule one of journalism.
I would argue that the U.S. has failed to make a legitimate case as to why the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki was justified or legal. That is also my position on anyone described as a “suspected militant.” There is a difference between being a “militant” and being an Al Qaeda “terrorist,” but, in this war, the goal posts are constantly being shifted by the U.S., with a lot of help from the press.
My broader concern is this: If you don’t have solid intelligence on the ground, and you are killing people based on superficial patterns of life or because they are “militant,” then you are entering into dangerous territory and the odds of killing a large number of innocent people is real. We are now into “pre-crime” territory, Minority Report-style. That should be disturbing to many Americans.
… I believe the escalation in drone and SOF [Special Operations Forces] operations has kept AQAP in check during a time when the U.S. has been absent an effective Yemeni counterterrorism partner that can effectively resist the terror group.
Today, members of AQAP in Yemen are plotting terrorist attacks against U.S. targets as seen by this past month’s revelation of Ibrahim al-Asiri developing a third generation underwear bomb likely able to pass through airport security. The U.S. has no other effective option for countering AQAP’s current threat to the U.S. homeland. AQAP’s repeated attempts to attack the U.S. necessitate a persistent counterterrorism response. Inaction is not an option.
Media reports and anti-drone advocates have rightly noted that civilian casualties have occurred from drone strikes and increases in these casualties enrage local populations and bolster support for AQAP. However, drones provide the most effective and least casualty-producing method for engaging AQAP. Any other option that could apply equal military pressure on AQAP would likely inflict far more civilian casualties on the Yemeni population. [See this post at KingsOfWar for some appropriate comparison.]
Former Amb. Barbara Bodine
I think we underestimate how damaging the drone strikes are to our general level of support in Yemen, and I don’t think we’ve fully interalized what’s going on in the south, and is taking on the characteristics of an insurgency. I’m not saying we should go in ourselves. Part of recognizing this as an insurgency is recognizing that there’s a large number of IDPs [internally displaced persons], refugees. The Yemeni government in order to get this under control will need to clear, build and hold — restore destroyed villages. So the Yemenis need to approach this as an insurgency. The drones are very counterproductive.
Young Yemenis want our support until we mention the drones, which they see as killing innocents, whether or not you can make an empirical case that we’re killing the bad guys. … The[re is a] cost-benefit analysis that you always have to do with drones: Is the target worth the cost of the collateral damage? I’m not sure that the targets are high enough value to warrant the political loss. …
We need to make it not just appear but have the Yemenis out in front and give them the support, the training, the assistance and the credit. I think some of it is a U.S. domestic need to be see as going after Al Qaeda … but we fail to understand that the other guy doesn’t want to feel as though he is just a proxy battleground. …
The drone and airstrikes are an incredibly powerful weapon that give the U.S. an amazing advantage over AQAP when they work as they are intended to work. However, when they go wrong – such as they did with the Dec. 17, 2009 strike [in Majala that killed dozens of civilians] – they become a powerful weapon in the hands of AQAP that helps the group bolster its ranks with new recruits. AQAP can basically hold up the image of shattered corpses of women and children who have died in strikes with the caption “Made in the USA.” This is a powerful recruiting tool.
… In December 2009, AQAP had roughly 200 to 300 members and controlled no territory. Today it has over 1,000 members and controls significant amounts of territory in Abyan and Shabwa. This begs a very simple question: Why has AQAP grown so strong in such a short time? Now, I don’t think U.S. drone and airstrikes are the only reason for the rapid growth of AQAP – one also has to consider the collapse of the Yemeni state in 2011 – but in my view it is certainly one of the key factors.
I think it is hard to underestimate the rage that these strikes cause, even when they do hit their intended target. No one on earth wants to be bombed. When the U.S. kills innocent people — even in the pursuit of the actual 1,000 or so members of AQAP — it sparks rage.
What the U.S. is doing now in Yemen is giving people a non-ideological reason to hate America. When you kill someone’s wife or children, when you leave unexploded munitions near their homes, the instinct of many people across the globe is to want revenge or justice. That was certainly the collective response of Democrats and Republicans alike in the U.S. post-9/11. There was a lot of talk of justice, but a lot louder talk of revenge and killing those responsible. Combine all of this with poverty and hopelessness and Yemen could be a factory for producing a generation that despises the U.S. and its proxies in the region.
The success rate of strikes had been grim until the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Fahd al-Quso, wanted for the 2000 USS Cole bombing. One of the most devastating strikes was in [Majala in] Abyan province, in December 2009. Fifty-five were killed and among the victims, 14 women and 21 children. The U.S. failed to acknowledge the botched mission, which just made people angrier.
When looking at the effectiveness of the strikes, in addition to these tragic cases, there’s also the fact that AQAP is a smart, fairly tight organization that learned from past mistakes, when Yemen’s branch of Al Qaeda had been all but defeated after 9/11. Many terrorism analysts both in Yemen and the U.S. believe they have built a group that can survive the loss of its leadership.
The civilian deaths undoubtably make AQAP’s recruitment drive easier. One analyst, whom I respect, suggested that Ansar al-Sharia’s movement began following the 2009 deaths. I think this negative impact is really underestimated in Washington.
In addition to the outrage these killings evoke, there’s also the fact that tribal allegiances drive much of Yemen. Too often this is confused in the West as support for AQAP’s ideology. Take for instance the protection Awlaki enjoyed before his death. Much of that was thanks to his family’s powerful tribe connection, not support in the ideology he espoused. So if the use of “signature [strikes]” – those that target regions instead of individuals – erroneously kill tribal leaders, women or children, the blowback is an increase in anti-U.S. sentiment of which AQAP will deftly capitalize.
You’ve reported on the death of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Oct. 14, 2011, just two weeks after his father. What did you find out about who he was and what was so controversial about the circumstances surrounding his death?
Awlaki had fascinated me for years. In the summer of 2009, I tried to find Anwar al-Awlaki, who was relatively unknown then — this was pre-Fort Hood & Dec. 25 failed bombing attempt — but whose name was a footnote in various domestic cases, including one in Canada. I was amazed to discover that almost no one in Yemen had heard of him, including those who tracked AQAP closely. This later made me question assertions that he had a key operational role in the organization (although few would dispute his influence online and appeal to Western youths).
The situation was of course different after news broke about his involvement in high-profile cases and then the publicity surrounding his inclusion on the list of CIA-sanctioned killings, given his American citizenship.
Going back this year following his death, I didn’t find many in Yemen mourning his demise – but there was concern about the death of his son. By all accounts, Abdulrahman had been living quite a normal teenage life since his father cut off contact and went into hiding in 2009. The 16-year-old had run away purportedly to find his father, but was in the wrong part of the country when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed. It is unclear who was the target of the drone attack that killed him shortly after, but Yemenis are still waiting for answers. Some of the youths who brought down President Ali Abdullah Saleh during 2011 protests also demonstrated about his death.
Has the U.S. government commented at all on his death?
Not on Abdulrahman’s death, not as far I know. …
Yemenis also question the basis upon which people are being targeted. When President Obama signed the order to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemenis asked what court has convicted him of a crime? What did he do besides give some speeches? And when Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed by a drone, Yemenis were outraged. The U.S. claimed he was in the company of a target, but such arguments are not convincing in Yemen. It appears to Yemenis that the U.S. is judge, jury, and executioner without any recourse to law for Yemenis. …
… While on the very short term, these strikes may target some militant leaders, in the long term, it is actually counterproductive. Drone strikes have hit many civilian homes, displacing the families, killing the inhabitants and enraging the citizens. Enraged tribal leaders — who are key in helping the government fight militants — have refused to cooperate with U.S. and Yemeni government-led counterterrorism efforts precisely because of these drones, while family members of drone strike victims have joined these groups to seek vengeance. More precisely, southerners who already feel marginalized have felt even more neglected by the government.
A song by a well-known southern singer Abood Khawaja, entitled, “Abyan Is Wounded,” condemns the silence of officials and citizens against the bloodshed and destruction of the city. “Why are you silent when the sea is burning, and the sky and ground are on fire,” he sings.
Anti-Americanism has also increased dramatically. It is important to note also that citizens in some parts of Abyan have been forbidden to leave their area by the militants. This meant that they have become prisoners in their own areas, always fearful that a drone may hit them. With nowhere else to channel their anger, disenfranchised young men become easy targets for recruitment.
Like many others in Yemen, I believe the drone program and strikes succeeded the most in the “Talibanization” of tribal areas and radicalizing people who are not ideologically related to the radical militants in the country.
… The civilian cost of such strikes created legitimate grievances that gave a golden opportunity to AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia to recruit fighters, operate in larger areas of the country and become part of fabric of the society in many areas. [And] new foreign political players in Yemen, like Iran, also seized this opportunity to gain more influence in the south. Drones added anger to the apathy [of] the Yemeni tribes, who are pragmatic and ready to cooperate yet never [have] been approached or given the incentives to join this fight against radical militants. …
Are There Alternatives to the Strikes?
Excellent question and one that remains absent from the discussion put forth by those opposing the use of drones in Yemen. I’ve argued with anti-drone advocates over the past year asking, “If the U.S. should not use drones, then what should the U.S. do to stop an AQAP that is planning to attack the U.S.?” I’ve not heard of one viable solution put forth by a critic of drone warfare.
The spectrum of alternatives for countering AQAP encompasses diplomacy, public affairs/strategic communications, information operations, foreign aid, economic development, training and equipping foreign militaries, training and equipping local Yemeni militias, U.S. military advisers and intelligence operations, as well as full-scale U.S. military intervention similar to what has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current state of Yemen’s government makes options such as economic development and diplomacy inappropriate. In contrast, the past decade of large-scale counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates the massive costs and questionable results of broad military intervention for deterring Al Qaeda.
Today, it appears the U.S. is pursuing strategic communications campaigns against AQAP and working with the Yemeni military and local militias. However, none of these efforts effectively disrupts AQAP’s current operations as well as drones. Additionally, anti-drone advocates continue to cite civilian casualties and blowback as justification for abandoning the use of drones in Yemen. However, these same advocates fail to address the incredible loss of life and harm to civilian populations that occurs during the conduct of large-scale counterinsurgency operations, Yemeni military advances or tribal militia battles.
In comparison to these military options, I would argue that drone operations are the least invasive and civilian casualty producing counterterrorism option able to deny AQAP safe haven and disrupt their plotting against the U.S.
The alternative is what is working right now. The Yemeni military allied with the “local committees” in Abyan have turned the tide against Al Qaeda’s insurrection. Ansar al-Sharia is led by Al Qaeda, but it is a different kind of movement than the terrorist organization of Al Qaeda. Ansar al-Sharia tried to hold territory and to govern local affairs. In the Abbottabad papers, bin Laden told his leaders that this was a mistake. Al Qaeda was not in a position to govern and to provide services to people. Furthermore, controlling territory meant opening up a front of conventional military conflict that Al Qaeda cannot win.
Bin Laden was right: Ansar al-Sharia was only successful when the Yemeni military and security were divided and fighting amongst themselves. They exploited some local grievances, and they capitalized on the large number of unemployed, poor, young who have no future in Yemen to patch together a fighting force. Only the Yemeni forces can effectively fight such a counterinsurgency battle. They know the territory and the people and only Yemenis can put together a political solution that will address the issues that Ansar al-Sharia exploited. A local military commander in Yemen explained that what the Yemeni need from the U.S. is economic aid to relieve the extreme poverty that feeds Ansar al-Sharia.
As far as Al Qaeda the terrorist organization, local cells can hide and operate anywhere. They have shown their ability to strike in Sana’a, Hudeida, Aden; and recall that the 9/11 conspiracy was run from Hamburg, Germany. Fighting this kind of organization requires good intelligence and good police work, which in turn depends upon the legitimacy of the government. If people feel that the government is on their side, they will work with intelligence and the police help root out illegal activity.
The same applies to tribes. If tribes feel that the government is fair and can be trusted then they will side with security forces against Al Qaeda. The U.S. administration claims that Yemen is an ungoverned space in which Al Qaeda can operate freely, but Yemen is not ungoverned. There is local law and local society. The recent years saw lots of political conflict and chaos, and Al Qaeda exploited it, but the drone campaign is a short-term and short-sighted solution. Only political and economic stability will work in the long run, and in the short run drones may delay stability by inflaming people against the Americans and their Yemeni supporters.
I believe the escalation of this bombing will ultimately make the U.S. and Yemen less safe and will create more enemies than it eliminates. I think a huge part of the problem with the U.S. in Yemen is that we are ignorant of Yemeni cultures. We see enemies everywhere and we rely on powerful forces with their own agendas — the Saudis and the Yemeni regime — for intelligence. If the U.S. invested more in studying Yemen and developing non military ties with Yemeni groups and tribes, I believe that there are many creative paths to take to confront the relatively minor, non-existential threat of terrorism emanating from Yemen. I’m not saying there is no risk of a plane being brought down by AQAP, but that I believe that old-fashioned intelligence is far better than “signature strikes” and letting the Saudis and Yemeni regime make the U.S.’s target lists so the military or CIA can zap people—who maybe are AQAP and maybe just a farmer with a long beard and a lot of friends—from the sky.
The American military is enamored of the example of the Awakening in Iraq that led local people to rise up against Al Qaeda. And they are seeing the same phenomena in the example of the “Local Committees” that have formed in Abyan to fight Ansar al-Sharia, particularly in Lawdar.
The local committees are not tribes though; they are locals organized into fighting units. These include local townspeople and tribesmen. They are not tribes fighting as tribes. The south was socialist and it has a tradition of local mobilization to draw upon. …
The key thing to remember is that tribes are like local government and their interests are in their local area. They make their decisions based upon their calculation of benefits to their local group. If the government abandons the area and Al Qaeda shows up, the tribe will have to deal with Al Qaeda, they are the local power. If Al Qaeda attacks the tribe, then the tribe will turn against Al Qaeda, as has happened. If the government is trusted to provide security and deliver services, then the tribe will turn against Al Qaeda and go with the government.
At this time, some say that the tribal structure is benefiting from the war on terrorism by playing both sides for the sheikh’s benefit. It’s to their advantage to prolong the conflict to take advantage of the largesse being distributed and the leverage they’ve attained over the state by being perceived as team members in the war on terror, while at the same time they play the role of protectors of AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia, without whose support, the latter would not be able to survive.
Alternatively, most Yemenis believe that a democratic state in Yemen with a decentralized system of governance, which empowers local powerbrokers, tribal and civilian, would change the rules of the game. The war on terror would change its character from one that pits the U.S. and its “allies” in the state against AQAP into one where local actors would battle with the terrorists for local development and advancement. Currently, the locals in South and North Yemen don’t believe that they have a “dog in the fight.” …
The nation is literally starving to death. Yemen’s economic and social problems pose a greater threat to the nation than Al Qaeda does. The presence of Al Qaeda is a byproduct of these failing conditions, but instead of addressing these problems our strategy has been to approach the situation with blinders on, a plan that fails to take into account the link between security and a fractured state. A weak central government and collapsing economy provide a vacuum for extremists to exploit, and as long as these issues are inadequately addressed, the region will continue to be vulnerable to extremist elements.
For the U.S., it’s become an absurd game of numbers, I think. We define our success against Al Qaeda by the amount of extremists we kill and nothing else. It is an incredibly misguided approach and it misses the point. Al Qaeda would not be in Yemen but for a discredited central government that has failed to provide its people with opportunities and better living conditions. This was decades in the making. Yemen’s economic and social problems need to be included in any strategy to defeat Al Qaeda otherwise the conditions that first brought them there will continue to work in their favor. …