Raids on al-Qaeda in Yemen: US involvement and what it means
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
Earlier this month I wrote about the possibility of a replay of 2001-2002 and the US targeting al-Qaeda operatives with drones. The news that the US "assisted" with this week's strikes on suspected al-Qaeda targets suggests that we here at Waq al-waq were not on an analytical safari when we wrote that. (The Washington Post picked this up, without giving us so much as a shout-out. Honestly, Karen DeYoung, our feelings are hurt. Tsk, tsk.)
It doesn't appear that it was drones, and ABC news is reporting that it was Cruise missiles, although this has yet to be confirmed and, tantalizingly, it also has not been denied. A more sober report from the New York Times opens:
"The United States provided firepower, intelligence and other support to the government of Yemen as it carried out raids this week to strike at suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda within its borders, according to officials familiar with the operations."
This coyness, as the New York Times story suggests, is an attempt to give a Yemeni face to the operation.
But Karen DeYoung, whom we criticized above, writes that "officials from both countries" are now confirming US assistance - whatever assistance means, it is rather vague. But she is the first to get Yemeni confirmation. (See how easy it is cite someone else?)
"The United States provided intelligence and other assistance to Yemeni forces in attacks Thursday against suspected al-Qaeda targets, according to officials from both countries."
So while the details of US involvement are still emerging, what does this mean? Well, since we asked the questions, we'll do our best to answer it.
First to no one's surprise, news that the US was involved - and possibly even carried out the attack - is not playing well in the Yemeni press. And as this news seeps further down into the consciousness of the country it is only going to get worse.
I understand the celebrations that are going on in certain parts of the intelligence and military community because of some of the individuals killed in the raid, but I would point out that the primary target of the raid, Qasim al-Raymi, escaped. (This is not the "deputy commander," but rather the "Military" or "Field" commander, at least if one wants to adhere to AQAP's own ranking system.)
It is debatable whether the civilian casualties could have been justified if the US and Yemeni governments had killed al-Raymi - I would still argue they wouldn't and that it is a self-defeating strategy that expands rather than limits the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen, but I do concede there is a debate here - but I don't think the casualties can be justified if al-Raymi escaped.
If you launch something like this, you had better kill al-Raymi. If you don't, no matter who else you kill, the operation is a failure. And particularly so when many of the dead are women and children.
There is already a slew of pictures of dead children, mangled infants and corpses on jihadi forums. This is not something the Obama Administration wants to see underlined with a "Made in the USA" caption.
As I have said at two different events in Washington during the past two weeks there is "no magic missile answer" to the current al-Qaeda problem in Yemen. Al-Qaeda is too entrenched and too strong to be decapitated like it was back in November 2002.
The raid this week may very well end up being a tactical success (although I still have my doubts about that) and a strategic failure. I have fewer doubts that al-Qaeda will be able to turn this operation to its rhetorical advantage, greatly offsetting the losses it may have suffered, particularly when al-Raymi escaped.
If this was the opening salvo to the US' war against al-Qaeda then it is not a good start. (Already the US is coming much too late to the party, the problem should have been dealt with back in 2006 and 2007 not to mention 2004 and 2005, before lapsed vigilance by the US and Yemeni governments allowed al-Qaeda to rebuild itself up from the ashes of a previous defeat. I should also mention that this analysis is, unsurprisingly, not shared by US officials who were intimately involved in US policy towards Yemen from 2004-06, as one told me at a recent event, which I am constrained from talking about further. But I still hold, again not surprisingly, that my analysis is solid.)
The US has been losing the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen fairly steadily since 2006 - not that it really noticed until 2009 - but if I were running the war I would have done a lot more prep work and development work to make sure that I had successfully undermined al-Qaeda before carrying out an operation like this. Otherwise, it is much too easy for al-Qaeda to replace recruits and expand its network to easily offset the losses it suffered this week.
If the US casts the net too wide and gives too broad a definition to who is al-Qaeda in Yemen it will end up fighting many more individuals then it can ever successfully defeat.
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