Are US drone killings in Yemen working?

The US has hit Yemen with seven drone strikes in a little more than a week. 

Eric Gay/AP/File
In this Nov. 8, 2011 file photo, a Predator B unmanned aircraft taxis at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. Two U.S. drone strikes killed a total of nine suspected al-Qaeda militants Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, a Yemeni military official said, the sixth and seventh such attacks in less than two weeks as the Arab nation is on high alert against terrorism.

Earlier today two US drone attacks killed nine alleged militants in Yemen, part of a recent intensification in the undeclared US air war against jihadis in that country.

The killings coincide with 19 US embassy and consulate closures across the Middle East and Africa this week and assertions from unnamed US officials that the decision was prompted by communications between Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of its affiliate in Yemen, and unspecified other fellow travelers. You have to wonder if the Obama administration's decision to increase the pace of killing in Yemen is tied to the alleged plot against US embassies. Or whether whatever precise intelligence that led to the embassy closures also revealed the whereabouts of men the US has long hoped to kill. 

Unfortunately the information (and, perhaps, disinformation) that has trickled out into public this week is insufficient to decide. But it's clear that US government alarm about the activities of Nasir al-Wuhayshi's Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is on the rise. The US has hit Yemen with seven drone strikes since July 27 – a remarkable pace given that it's launched a total of 77 such attacks on the country since the campaign began in 2010.

One of the first killings of an Al Qaeda associate with a drone came in Yemen in 2002, when a Predator fired a Hellfire missile to kill the top Al Qaeda member in the country Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi and five others. Mr. Harithi was accused of being a top planner for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor in 2000, which claimed the lives of 17 US sailors.

But the risks of backlash from the assassination campaign in Yemen have long been understood. Jeb Boone wrote from Yemen in 2011 that killing people in the country was leading to intensified attacks on the government from Yemenis seeking revenge for its assistance to the US program, essentially creating the very instability on which Al Qaeda thrives:

"Our reaction [to the presence of drones] is like any Yemeni’s. It is a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and a crime committed against the Yemeni people," says Ahmed al-Shabwani, whose brother, former deputy governor of the Marib Governorate Jabr al-Shabwani, was accidentally killed in a May 2010 US drone strike. Even after being paid blood money by the Saleh regime, the Al Shabwani family carried out attacks against Marib’s oil and power infrastructure demanding that the Yemeni government stop cooperating with the US drone and missile strikes.

... What's more, says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, there's a strong link between the failing Yemeni economy and American drone and missile strikes. “That one drone strike in May of last year has cost Yemen over $1 billion dollars and the cost is still rising as the main Marib pipeline is still shut down,” says Mr. Iryani. “The truth is, we can’t anticipate the cost of these drone strikes, in terms of the humanitarian costs as well as the economic costs, but they will be dire."

It seems prudent to take threats emanating from Yemen seriously. In September 2008, Al Qaeda supporters in Yemen launched a complex attack involving rocket-propelled grenades and at least one suicide bomber on the US Embassy in Sanaa. The attack claimed 18 lives, one of them American, and a breach of the embassy compound and a full blown disaster was only narrowly averted.

In early December 2009, the US responded, but disastrously. A US cruise missile delivered a cluster bomb to an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in southern Yemen that claimed 55 lives, 41 of them civilians, an event that heightened anti-Americanism in the country and caused a rethink on US targeting procedures. That 2009 strike was the first US attack in the country since 2002, but was a harbinger of the drone war to come. A US attack that was the first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki followed on Dec. 24, 2009 and claimed dozens of lives.

The next day would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student in Yemen who moved in Awlaki's circles, tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. That failed attack intensified the air campaign, though drone strikes did not feature heavily again until 2011. That summer, there were at least 14 drone attacks inside the country with fatalities. Awlaki was finally killed by a US drone on Sept. 30, 2011. In 2012 there were over 45 suspected drone strikes in Yemen. This year the pace had slackened – with 17 such attacks through July – but the Obama administration now appears to be making up for lost time.

What has all this achieved? A lot of people have been killed, but many who follow Yemen closely believe that America's "mowing the lawn" approach of killing alleged militants is also spreading a lot of seeds.

Gregory D. Johnsen, who's studying for a Ph.D at Princeton in Near Eastern studies and focuses on Yemen and its militant networks, wrote earlier this week that the drones are figuratively shooting the US in the foot.

For all the strikes and all the dead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as it is often known, continues to attract more members, growing from 300 in 2009 to well over a thousand today.

... Why, if the US counterterrorism approach is working in Yemen, as the Obama administration claims, is AQAP still growing? Why after nearly four years of bombing raids is the group capable of putting together the type of plot that leads to the U.S. shuttering embassies and missions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf?

The answer is simple, if rather disheartening: Faulty assumptions and a mistaken focus paired with a resilient and adaptive enemy have created a serious problem for the US. Part of the US approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called Al Qaeda's core. (Although as Al Qaeda's strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories.) Unfortunately not all lessons are transportable. What this means is that the US is fighting the Al Qaeda that was, instead of the Al Qaeda that is. 

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda was largely a group of Arabs in non-Arab countries. In Yemen, Al Qaeda is made up mostly of Yemenis living in Yemen. 

This has two key implications for the US. First, new recruits no longer need to travel abroad to receive specialized training. For years, men like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and the man believed by U.S. officials to be recently promoted to Al Qaeda's global deputy, had to spend time in training camps in Afghanistan to acquire the requisite experience. But since AQAP has developed its own network in Yemen, that is no longer the case. Now young Yemenis who want to join al Qaeda can study with Ibrahim Asiri, the group's top bombmaker, without ever leaving home....

The second drawback to assuming that what worked in one place would automatically work in another is what Yemenis call tha'r, or revenge -- a concept the US appears to have overlooked in Yemen. The men that the US is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be Al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen, and clansmen with friends and relatives.

Mr. Johnsen thinks that Al Qaeda in Yemen has proven itself more than capable to weather the loss of top leaders and that US policy in the country, focused on stopping possible immediate threats to US interests without much attention payed to long-term consequences and strategy, is failing. 

On the measure of 19 embassies and consulates closed this week, it appears he has a point.

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