Drone use surges in Yemen, the frontline against Al Qaeda

Drone strikes in Yemen skyrocketed in 2012, as much as tripling in frequency when compared to 2011. 

Hani Mohammed/AP
A Yemeni soldier sits atop a military vehicle securing a street during a rally by pro-democracy protestors in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday.

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Yemen – home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – has come close to eclipsing Pakistan as a key focus of American counter-terrorism efforts.

In 2011, then-CIA director David Petraeus characterized the group as the “most dangerous node in the global jihad” and the American government’s action has appeared to echo the rhetoric. Notably, the number of American airstrikes in Yemen, largely carried out by unmanned drones, has surged over the past year, as much as tripling in frequency in comparison with 2011.

The airstrikes are just one element of a multifaceted engagement in Yemen. A small number of US forces are stationed there to provide strategic assistance to the Yemeni military, while Washington has provided more than $300 million, split among military, humanitarian and development aid.

Even as the drone strikes have increased in frequency, they remain a center of debate, overshadowing most other facets of the American and Yemeni governments’ efforts against AQAP.

In contrast to those in Pakistan, drone strikes in Yemen take place with the government’s permission. Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took power last February in the wake of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has gone as far as publicly endorsing the strikes. That’s a marked shift from the official silence of his predecessor.

In remarks made during a September visit to the US, Mr. Hadi echoed Obama administration officials and cast the strikes as a key tool in the battle against AQAP. He explicitly contrasted the drones’ capabilities with those of the aging fleet of the Yemeni air force, which is largely unable to operate at night.

While Saleh was once – controversially – characterized as a key American counterterrorism ally, officials on both sides have spoken of a sharp improvement in cooperation since Hadi’s inauguration. They said the strengthened relations already had begun to yield results, pointing to last spring’s offensive in the southern Abyan province, when Yemeni troops and local fighters, backed by American air and intelligence support, dislodged militants affiliated with AQAP from territory they’d held for more than a year.

Regardless, the Al Qaeda group and affiliated fighters have shown little sign of giving up the fight. Militants have continued to launch attacks in Abyan and elsewhere, appearing to push back against suggestions that they’ve been contained, while bombings and assassinations by alleged AQAP operatives in urban areas have underscored the group’s ability to strike within Yemen’s cities.

A key stated goal of American airstrikes in Yemen is targeting specific high-ranking militants in the Al Qaeda group. But despite the surge in drone strikes, the group’s core leadership has survived the year nearly intact, while its rank and file is estimated to have more than tripled since 2009. The group’s resilience, analysts say, strongly suggests that the strategy being used to combat it is deeply flawed.

“Essentially what the US is doing is bombing suspected AQAP targets in Yemen in the hopes that AQAP doesn’t bomb the US,” said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge, ” a recently released book on Yemen and AQAP. “In my view, this is neither sustainable nor wise. We have seen AQAP grow incredibly fast in a remarkably short amount of time, expanding from 200-300 fighters in 2009, when the US bombing campaign began, to more than 1,000 fighters today. That is more exacerbating and expanding the threat than it is disrupting, dismantling and defeating it.”

Even if Yemen’s new president has backed them, American drone strikes remain deeply controversial here.

Many see targeted killings as a violation of the nation’s sovereignty and a sign of disrespect for the rule of law. Critics point to cases of civilian casualties in expressing their misgivings.

A botched drone strike in the central town of Rada left 12 civilians dead this fall, inflaming widespread apprehensions about the strikes.

“They’re having a huge effect in how people see the US,” said Intisar al Qadhi, a political activist who’s the daughter of a prominent tribal leader from the province of Mareb, the site of numerous drone strikes. “When we think about America, we see an image of a plane, dropping bombs on our people.”

But while emotions often are charged, some Yemenis have offered qualified support for the strikes, casting them as the best of a slate of bad options. Owing to its technological superiority, they say, the American government is able to play a positive role in the battle against AQAP – assuming airstrikes are used judiciously, and deaths of innocents are avoided.

“We’re all aware of the state of the Yemeni military,” said Jamal Saleh, who bears scars from injuries he suffered while fighting militants as part of an anti-Al Qaeda militia in his hometown in Abyan. American “strikes that kill Al Qaeda are one thing. But strikes that kill civilians are another.”

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