Drones Over Yemen

While thousands of Yemenis continue to take to the streets demanding elections and democratic reform in defiance of ongoing deadly government crackdowns, the US government, led by its Nobel Peace prize winning President, is beginning what may well become its fourth war. Unlike the kinetic action (war) to defend the peoples’ right to democracy in oil and sovereign wealth fund rich Libya, the war in Yemen will be cast as part of the “global war on terror.”

Following the recent bombing of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, by yet to be identified assailants and his medical evacuation to Saudi Arabia, the CIA began what it has long planned: unrestricted drone warfare in Yemen. The targets of the drones are ostensibly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives but if previous US led operations in Yemen are a measure of future successes, civilians?often women and children?will make up the majority of the charred bodies.

Increased American involvement in Yemen will do nothing to stabilize Yemen or combat a much exaggerated al-Qaeda threat?quite the opposite. Expanded drone strikes, and even better, “boots on the ground” are exactly the kind of moves al-Qaeda wants the US to make. US policy in Yemen is al-Qaeda’s greatest hope for success in the country.

In the months leading up to what is now being billed as the US’s new “secret war”‘ in Yemen, various US government officials have called AQAP and American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki the greatest threats to US national security. Al-Awlaki, who is often erroneously reported as the head of AQAP or even of al-Qaeda, is a marginal figure in AQAP who at most might be labeled a propagandist for the organization. He is largely regarded as either a madman or US agent by most members of his tribe and by most Yemenis. Many Yemenis are well aware of al-Awlaqi’s luncheon at the Pentagon in 2002. This received little coverage in the US press. One would think that a “terrorist mastermind” such as al-Awlaqi lunching at the Pentagon would at a minimum prompt a few questions about DOD vetting procedures. Instead the news outlets run a steady stream of frightening and unquestioning reports about how Yemen is soon to be another Somalia, another Afghanistan, a new Taliban style/ al-Qaeda outpost.

The “underwear bomber” and “toner bombs” are repeatedly cited as proof of AQAP’s international reach and advanced capabilities. While seemingly sophisticated, both of the botched attacks had serious flaws that marked them out as the work of amateurs. In the case of the underwear bomber, AQAP reportedly went to the trouble of securing an advanced explosive but failed to provide Nigerian bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab with the training or correct device to ignite the bomb. The toner bombs which made use of the same type of explosive as the underwear bomber were concealed in bulky boxes addressed to synagogues in Chicago?nothing suspicious about packages being shipped from Yemen to synagogues. The case of the underwear bomber, whose name was on a US watch list, who paid cash for a very expensive ticket, traveled a circuitous and highly suspicious route, carried no luggage, and whose extraordinarily wealthy father warned US government officials in Nigeria, should have prompted a thorough review of at least some of our almost countless security agencies’ procedures. This did not happen. Instead expensive, potentially dangerous, and ineffective body scanners were deployed in airports around the US.

Beyond the al-Qaeda war on terror mantra that is chanted by the US government and the largely obedient US media, lies a highly complex country that faces a host of challenges from demographic pressures to water shortages. Few if any of these pressing and genuinely destabilizing challenges have been addressed by either the Yemeni government or donor nations. The US government has predictably focused the bulk of its efforts on the “counter-terror” agenda and it has directed most of its aid toward weapons purchases for Yemen’s Special Forces and “counter-terror” units. The 2010 bill for weapons and training upgrades runs to around 150 million USD. Yemen’s Central Security Service, headed by President Saleh’s nephew, is home to the country’s counter-terror unit and the Republican Guard which is commanded by Saleh’s son is home to Yemen’s Special Forces. Both the Republican Guard and the Central Security Service have played and continue to play key roles in suppressing, often with deadly results, the pro-reform and pro-democracy demonstrators.

Now that the US has seemingly lost it’s often less than willing partner in the “war on terror,” Yemeni President (recently demoted to dictator by the Washington Post) Ali Abdullah Saleh, these investments and the US’s ability to conduct operations in Yemen are in doubt. The rationale behind the CIA’s move toward an expanded drone war in Yemen is that a government less disposed to fighting al-Qaeda and participating in the “global war on terror” may come to power in Yemen. Thus the CIA needs the ability and capability to violate Yemeni sovereignty at will. The CIA has long set its sights on acquiring control of counter-terror operations in Yemen. It has been involved in a protracted turf war with US Special Operations Command over which agency/ military entity would run the “war on terror” in Yemen. The reasons given for the handover are that the CIA is subject to even less oversight and subject to fewer operational restrictions than the US military.

The leadership of AQAP must be celebrating this move by the US government. The dead women and children, the dead sheikhs (tribal heads), and general chaos that are likely to result from increased US and especially CIA involvement in Yemen mean that AQAP has a bright future in the country and can expect many new recruits. Seeing your mother’s, wife’s, or child’s burned and or dismembered body tends to produce dedicated recruits. AQAP, which was suffering from a dearth of funds and recruits, enjoyed a considerable increase in both after the US used cruise missiles armed with cluster munitions to take out a suspected al-Qaeda training camp in December 2009?14 women and 21 children died in the attack.

Another success was the May 2010 drone attack on a suspected al-Qaeda operative in Marib. Instead of killing an al-Qaeda operative the attack killed Sheikh Shabwani of the Abidah tribe who was also deputy governor of Marib. Members of Shabwani’s tribe and allied clans and tribes attacked the town of Marib as well as pipelines and other infrastructure in retaliation for his death. The attacks, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage, forced President Saleh to apologize for the attack and pay out several million dollars in blood money. No doubt the attack made AQAP and other militant Salafis many new friends.

Rather than launching a new drone war, the global beacon of democracy and human rights could be doing everything possible to engage with the Yemeni opposition, pro-reform demonstrators, and tribal heads many of whom have already promised a continued commitment to fighting al-Qaeda. However, given the numerous banners carried by demonstrators that equate al-Qaeda with the Saleh government, it seems that many protesters have figured out what states and state actors have always known: terrorists and terrorism are tactical and political Swiss Army knives. They are also great profit generators for the most viable and vibrant part of the US economy?the homeland security and defense sectors.

Yemen faces numerous grave challenges and Islamic radicalism is certainly one of these. However, hellfire missiles and cluster munitions, which more often than not miss their targets or hit the wrong ones, are probably not the best way to help stabilize Yemen and help it to combat radicalism.

Thomas Hudson writes about the Middle East.


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