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Why Things will get worse in Yemen (Updated)

A couple of days ago Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a wide-ranging interview to the Associated Press, touching on Yemen.

The secretary, who earlier this year admitted the US had done little to no post-Salih planning, sounded an optimistic note on Yemen’s future, saying he didn’t think the US would see “full-blown war there.”

“With Saleh being in Saudi Arabia, maybe something can be worked out to bring this to a close,” by finding an accommodation among Saleh’s family, the opposition tribes and the military.

I hope Secretary Gates is correct, but the day after his interview the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy piece detailing US plans to dramatically increase drone strikes in Yemen.   That report came on the heels of one in the New York Times, and was followed by reports in the Washington Post and, then, this morning one in the Associated Press claiming that the US was building a secret base in the region to launch the drone attacks. 

I have argued against just such a strategy for the past 3-4 years, for the same reason I have been so against the GCC plan to transition away from Salih: I don’t think it can work and will, I believe, make the situation worse.

There are other reasons as well to oppose this strategy.

This is essentially the seduction of a quick and seemingly easy fix to a difficult problem. 

There are, of course, reasons policy makers think the strategy will work.  Drones scare AQAP – and we know from what the organization puts out that they move around a lot to avoid them.

But still I think whatever gains the US gets from the strikes – and they will likely kill some commanders – these will be overshadowed and outweighed by the long-term consequences of such a strategy.  Basically, the longer and more intense such a policy of drone strikes is – the stronger AQAP will become.  

Simply put there is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen.  It will take a lot of hard diplomacy and nuanced efforts on a variety of different fronts but AQAP can be defeated – just not by drones alone.  

Let’s start at the beginning.  The US used a drone strike against AQ in Yemen back in 2002, killing Abu Ali al-Harithi, the head of the organization, as well as five others who were in the car, including an individual with American citizenship.

That strike in November 2002 essentially broke the back of AQ in Yemen, and within a year the organization had basically collapsed as many of the other leaders were arrested as the group tried to organize on the run.  Like much of the world, AQ in Yemen was not at all prepared for September 11 and the fighting that followed.

For the next few years AQ in Yemen basically disappeared, there were a few cells but they lacked organization and an infrastructure.  Most of the seasoned AQ operatives were in jail – much more on this in an upcoming piece – and those that weren’t in jail were more attracted to the war in Iraq than they were to a dying jihad at home.

Things in Yemen – on the AQ front – got so quiet that the US and Yemeni governments turned their attention to other problems, in what I have called a case of lapsed vigilance.  The US even cut funding to Yemen, reducing it to $4.6 million in 2006.

Of course, that year was when 23 AQ suspects tunneled out of a security prison.  No one really paid attention despite the growing evidence that AQ was reconstituting itself in Yemen.  And, importantly, learning from its past mistakes.

Then, in late 2008, an AQ cell attacked the US Embassy in Yemen and suddenly they had the US’ attention again.  Next came the return of Gitmo detainees and the formation of AQAP in January 2009. 

Late that year, after an attempt on Saudis CT head, Muhammad bin Nayyif – someone who has good ties to Western intelligence agencies – the US started carrying out air strikes against AQAP targets in Yemen.  And here is where we get to our problem.

The US couldn’t hit what it was aiming at.  On Dec. 17, it targeted what it believed to be an AQAP training camp, instead it killed a number of women and children, something AQAP has made much of its in propaganda statements and which has helped recruiting. 

The US’ record wasn’t much better throughout the spring and in May 2010 it carried out a strike in Marib that instead of killing the AQ operative it was after, actually knocked off a Yemeni government official – the deputy governor of the province.  His tribe has been causing problems since in retaliation for his death – these strikes don’t take place in a vacuum.

These errant strikes have also, I believe – based on the number of new authors showing up in Sada al-Malahim as well as the number of attacks AQAP has carried out in 2010 – increased the number of recruits joining AQAP.

The organization is stronger now than it was in late 2009 when it planned and launched the attack that almost brought down the airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.  One of the major reasons for this is the US airstrikes.

What AQAP says in Arabic matters and for years it has been making a theological argument that Yemen is no different than Iraq or Afghanistan.  That just as those countries are under western military attack, so too is Yemen.  For years, this argument fell on deaf ears – after all there had been no invasion, and Yemen still had a nominally Muslim ruler. 

As the perception and reality of US attacks grow – this is changing.  And this is really important.  There are many more Islamists in Yemen – people who went abroad to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq – than there are members of AQAP. 


Because many of those who went abroad to fight did so to defend Muslim lands from western military aggression and when they returned they disagreed with AQAP’s claim that Yemen is a legitimate theater of jihad. 

With the US launching bombs into Yemen many more individuals will join up with AQAP for the same reason they went abroad to fight: to defend their land from what they see as Western military aggression. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough the US is taking it one step further and, according to the Wall Street Journal, will be targeting people according to their “pattern of life.”  As I mentioned yesterday on twitter, this prospect frightens me.

AQAP members don’t just associate with other AQAP members and they don’t always tell people they are meeting with that they are AQAP members.  Just because people look like AQ, and sound like AQ doesn’t mean they are AQ. 

What happens when the US starts killing people it thinks might be AQAP but turn out not to be – you know, people with families, and clans, and tribes who aren’t so happy that their relative was killed by the US?

I would point to the case of Ghalib al-Zayadi, who in this interview with Mareb Press sounds a lot like an AQAP member, (Ar.) but he is careful to say that he is not and, in fact, he has some serious issues with AQAP’s leadership.  Would he be a target based on “pattern of life”?  What would be the consequences of killing him or someone like him?

Does the US really want to get involved in killings like this that can suck entire tribes into the fight – just ask Salih and Saudi Arabia how that worked in Sa’dah.

At its heart I think this is a strategy that has seduced people in Washington, who want to believe that there is a quick and easy solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen.  But wishing it were so doesn’t make it true. 

Defeating AQAP is going to take a lot of hard work on multiple fronts – at the very least it will require the US to stop viewing Yemen solely as a counterterrorism problem to be solved.

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If the US continues to pursue this same flawed strategy it will continue to get the same flawed results – more AQAP recruits and a stronger, bigger organization. 

And eventually it will expand this war into something it can’t kill its way out of – intensifying or doubling-down or whatever you want to call this new development will yield the same, only more so.

Reading Recommendations:

And in other Yemen related news I highly recommend these two articles on Yemen:

Sarah Phillips: Who Tried to Kill Ali Abdullah Salih, Foreign Policy

Bernard Haykel: Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Dilemma, Foreign Affairs

Update: Incidentally, I was also on Democracy Now earlier today talking about this very subject – anyone who wishes to subject themselves to more of my ramblings can go here – warning I forgot to shave.


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