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The Yemen Model: Drones and Permanent War

This week the Washington Post published a three-part series it entitled “Permanent War.”  The first piece, by Greg Miller, talks about the disposition matrix and sets the stage for the next two: a profile of John Brennan by Karen DeYoung and a look at one of the US drone base in Djibouti by Craig Whitlock

All three pieces are worth reading and include some fine reporting – all three pieces also focus heavily on Yemen, which shouldn’t be surprising.  In DeYoung’s piece Brennan is quoted as saying Yemen is a “model” for US CT efforts. 

Indeed, in many ways since the US started bombing there in December 2009, Yemen has been a laboratory for the US to try out different approaches in its war against al-Qaeda.  But I’m not so sure the results are as positive as Brennan and many of the other anonymous officials quoted suggest.

To begin with, I’m not sure how Yemen can be viewed as a model – at least in the positive sense Brennan seems to indicate – when AQAP has tripled in size since the US started bombing.

Estimates of the group’s size vary widely.  But both US and Yemeni officials estimates in December 2009 suggested that AQAP was around 200-300, while today official US estimates range from 1,000 to several thousand.  Yemenis who are close to AQAP suggest that the group has as many as 6,000 fighters.

But even taking the most conservative official estimate of AQAP’s current strength, which happens to be Brennan’s: the group still went from 200-300 fighters in 2009 to 1,000 today. 

Some have also suggested that just looking at AQAP’s strength in terms of recruits and fighters isn’t an accurate judge of what matters most to the US, which is preventing an attack against the homeland as well as against US personnel in Yemen.  That is a fair if impossible point to prove.  Mostly this is just guess work – we can argue about how close AQAP is to pulling off an attack against the US, but until the group actually does this is more of an academic exercise than anything else.

Additionally, I would argue that events from this spring – when an undercover agent came away with AQAP’s latest underwear bomb – shows a couple of things: 1. despite the US bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been partially designed to keep AQAP on its heels so that it can’t plot attacks against the US, the organization is still actively plotting and attempting to launch new attacks.  2.  The more recruit AQAP gains the bigger of a talent pool it has upon which to draw.  And for those who would argue that local Yemeni and Saudi recruits don’t pose the same level of threat to the US that foreign-born militants do, I would cite the case of Ibrahim Asiri – the bomber we are all so worried about – who was a local Saudi recruit.

Another important question, and one that is as easy to ask as it is difficult to answer, is the why question.  Why has AQAP grown so strong so fast?  Why has it went from 200-300 fighters in 2009 to at least 1,000 today.  I have argued that civilian casualties and the deaths of tribesmen in Yemen from US drone and missile strikes – today’s Post article reminds us that F-15s are also flying sorites over Yemen – are a key (although not the only) factor in AQAP’s growth.

Again there has rightly been some pushback against my views here.  This – determining what drives someone to join a terrorist organization – is an extremely difficult area to determine cause and effect.  There is a lot less evidence than we would like and there is, as always, a strong temptation to smuggle one’s own biases into the project and read too much into the too little evidence.  

That being said, I still believe the deaths of civilians and tribesmen have played a significant factor in AQAP’s rapid growth.  Brennan and other officials have laughed this off, saying they have seen no such evidence.  Others have suggested that economic considerations drive much of the recruitment.  And indeed, I think economic factors do a play a role, but not one that negates that of dead Yemenis. 

And while there are no conclusive polls of the militants within AQAP – and would we even trust their articulated reasons over what we think of as the underlying reasons that they didn’t mention? – I base my argument on several things: first, what the fighters within AQAP themselves say (some, usually those with no experience reading AQAP’s Arabic materials often say this is simply self-serving propaganda that can’t be trusted.  It is propaganda, but there is a surprising degree of latitude, which I think speaks to individual voices coming through.) I also rely on interviews with Yemenis from a variety of backgrounds, including those who study, talk to, and report on al-Qaeda.  Additionally, I compare and contrast what is happening now with the growth of al-Qaeda in Yemen to what was happening in 2001-04 and 2006-09.  All times when there wasn’t a consistent and constant US bombing campaign.  I also draw on a decade of travel to and study of Yemen.

These are suggestive, not conclusive, which is why many will still disagree with my opinions.  Fair enough, although I think to suggest that there is no link between US bombings, dead civilians and tribesmen and the rapid growth of AQAP is something close to willful ignorance.

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One final point that struck me about the trio of Washington Post articles, and that is all the officials quoted seemed to operate on the assumption that the US can defeat AQAP on its own.  This is flat wrong.  If this becomes a war between the US and AQAP in Yemen – the US will lose, as indeed it is losing now.  The US is not disrupting, dismantling, and defeating AQAP in Yemen. 

This has to be Yemenis against AQAP – the only people who can defeat al-Qaeda in Yemen are tribesmen, clerics and the rest of Yemen’s 25 million people who aren’t in al-Qaeda.  The US can do a lot of good in working with these allies, but it can also do a lot of bad.  And that is what I see at the moment.  By the US operating so heavy handed in Yemen – and with such a consistent patter of stories in the local press about civilians dying in US strikes – the US actually constrains many of its would-be allies by not giving them the space they need to confront al-Qaeda.

Now, none of this should be taken to suggest that the US should never strike in Yemen.  In fact, I’m not an opponent of drones – the technology is not going to go away (although the US could have and should have done a much better job in establishing a legal and ethical framework for their use).  My argument has always been that the US needs to be much more judicious in its use of drones in Yemen, not that it should foreswear ever using them.

But when the US has carried out at least 36 attacks this year in Yemen in an effort to kill 10-15 men something is wrong.  Either the drones aren’t as accurate as we are constantly told, or the US is doing something other than targeting the top leaders of AQAP who are plotting against the US.  Either way people are dying in these strikes, and just because the US doesn’t know their identities doesn’t mean that their identities aren’t known to people in Yemen.

Finally, let me round off this post by recommending that you all carve out a bit of time and listen to friend of Waq al-waq, Michelle Shephard talk to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Michelle is a great storyteller and whether she is talking about Guantanamo Bay or a brave young Somali boy and his heart-wrenching and then, mercifully, heart-warming story you will learn something.

Oh, and the Voice of America just posted this interview in which I talk about drones, al-Qaeda, and the future of Yemen. 


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