Are American Drones al-Qaeda's Strongest Weapon in Yemen?
The battle for hearts and minds in the country revolves around unmanned death planes.
Yemeni Soldiers (Image via)
Things are getting really messy in Yemen at the moment. With soldiers being murdered in their sleep, embassies closing en masse in fear of an imminent wave of attacks and multiple drone strikes, the country seems to be the latest sandbox full of blood in the US’ War on Terror.
Not that this warzone is all that new. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have had a presence in the area for years, their membership rising from around 300 in 2009 up to an estimated 1,000 today. In an attempt to combat this rise in manpower, the US has escalated its infamous drone programme, allegedly targeting high-ranking AQAP members, although according to reports they've yet to actually kill any of them.
Is this hit and hope policy really the best way to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen? Or are these drone strikes, which have a habit of killing civilians, exactly the PR ammo al-Qaeda need to lure new recruits in a country that is already as politically stable as a gang of jihadists on a bouncy castle?
“Drones will always be an easy way for [organisations like al-Qaeda] to gain anti-American support,” Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told me. “When something like a drone strike comes crashing down in people's front bedrooms or front rooms, that's going to help you recruit and radicalise, absolutely.”
This is already the case in other places with a heavy US drone presence, such as Pakistan. According to research, the drone policy has caused the majority of the population to see the US as an enemy, with strikes killing civilians, breeding resentment towards the US and undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty. Indeed, the foiled Times Square bomber declared that his attack was intended as payback for the US’ worldwide use of drones, a point that is seldom admitted by advocates of "targeted killings".
Depressingly, commentators believe that the use of drone strikes in Yemen could be even more damaging than they have been in Pakistan. Michael Boyle, an expert on terrorism and political violence, and author of The Costs and Consequences of Drone Warfare, told me about some vital differences between the two when it comes to patterns of al-Qaeda affiliation. “The membership of al-Qaeda in a place like Pakistan comprises people who come from many areas, such as Russia, the Middle East, Africa and Asia," he explained. "They come to Pakistan to fight. In Yemen, however, al-Qaeda membership is dominated by people who were born and raised in the country, with deep connections to the local tribal structures.”
An MQ-9 Reaper (Image via)
This means that when a drone strike kills an unintended target, it is likely to be someone's brother, father, uncle or son; sister, mother, aunt or daughter. This situation is probably going to breed more desire for retribution than the death of a fellow soldier, no matter how strong the thirst for vengeful jihad. There is also the threat of killing someone with strong connections to a clan or tribe and generating a level of public outrage that could destabilise the Yemeni government.
It is these close-knit ties of people who may not have any kind of connection to al-Qaeda that make Yemen a completely different battlefield to Afghanistan or Pakistan. According to Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni youth activist, “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.” During the latest escalation of violence, Yemeni bloggers have claimed “there is more hostility now in Yemen against the US because of these attacks”. Even Robert Grenier, a former CIA station head, has said that the US’ policy in Yemen runs the risk of turning the country into a "safe haven" for al-Qaeda.
Even as academics, experts and Yemenis themselves are saying that drones may be contributing to a rise in al-Qaeda's local fanbase, the US government are seeking to place the blame elsewhere. In the recent sentencing of Bradley Manning, prosecutors claimed that his leak of over 700,000 files to WikiLeaks had aided al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.
Yemeni Civilians (Image via)
However, visit any local Yemeni news website and you’ll be greeted with images of the latest bloodied drone strike victims. As a Yemeni, what's more likely to make you resent the US: whatever you happen to see of Manning's leaks, or the very real threat of a missile killing your family at any moment?
Admittedly, it's difficult to know exactly how many Yemenis have been "radicalised" because of the drones' presence, and how many of these people actually end up joining their local al-Qaeda division. It's not something that's particularly easy to research with any kind of authority – there's no bubbly al-Qaeda PR girl sat in an office in Sana'a somewhere who will gladly pull the latest membership stats for you.
Of course, it's also possible that the tribes will come to blame al-Qaeda for attracting drone strikes. “Al-Qaeda have a global plan, but they've had to relegate those global concerns in favour of local ones to make these tribal alliances," Meleagrou-Hitchens explains. "But in the end, they will continue to pursue this global strategy and at some point that is going to dawn on their allies [the tribes]: that these guys are going to bring a lot more trouble than they're worth.”
An RQ-1 Predator (Image via)
If al-Qaeda, or the myriad other extremist Islamist groups, can only survive by keeping alliances with the tribes, then it follows that the US might ultimately need the tribes' support to lessen radical Islam's grip on the area. Meleagrou-Hitchens has some ideas about how Obama's administration might go about courting that support: “I think the US would have to encourage the Yemeni government to start helping people outside of the main cities. When al-Qaeda come along and say to the tribes that they can help with their running water, their crops, etc, then they'll ally with them. So you have to be able to offer them what al-Qaeda is offering – or at least make sure the Yemeni government does.”
But by alienating these same tribes through murder of their friends and relatives, the US seems to be making the whole situation worse. "At the moment, the US is the worst and most feared enemy,” a Yemeni-born blogger known as Noon told me over email. “The US drones have claimed the lives of many more people than al-Qaeda. While al-Qaeda targets military personnel in Yemen, the US drones kill arbitrarily without differentiating between civilians and so called ‘militants’.”
One of the main attractions drones hold for the US is that they allow them to wage war remotely, thus avoiding the loss of life to military personnel and the domestic ill-feeling back home that comes with it. However, ultimately the resentment that drone strikes cause has to be focused somewhere and at this stage it looks most likely to turn various factions within the country against each other. With clashes erupting between Yemeni forces and local tribespeople and al-Qaeda looking to break their members out of local prisons, the situation in Yemen seems primed for civil war and insurgency.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox