Analyzing the US Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen


By Stacey Emker

The United States has placed great emphasis on fighting the militant Islamic group based in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) because it has been characterized as one of the most dangerous Al-Qaeda affiliates worldwide. AQAP has demonstrated its intent to carry out attacks within U.S. borders, and against U.S. interests in Yemen. Replacing the long established Al-Qaeda threats emanating from South Asia and North Africa, the Obama Administration has identified AQAP as the most immediate threat to the U.S. homeland. Since the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012, the transitional government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi remains weak outside the capital of Sana’a. Overall, Yemen is on the verge of becoming a failed state with economic, social, and political challenges that AQAP is attempting to exploit in order to consolidate its power within the country.

U.S. policy toward Yemen consists of three elements: combating AQAP in the short term, increasing development assistance, and advocating international support for stabilization. While all of these elements will go towards stabilizing Yemen, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy against AQAP in the short term, particularly its utilization of targeted killings through its covert drone campaign.

Over the past year, the U.S. has accelerated its drone campaign in Yemen and in April 2012 the Obama Administration significantly expanded the authority of the CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to use “signature strikes.” This tactic permits strikes without knowing the identity of a person and to hit targets based solely on intelligence demonstrating patterns of suspicious behavior. In order to measure the utility of this counterterrorism policy, the costs of drone strikes in Yemen must be compared to the benefits of the operation. Consequently, it is important to examine the effects within the domestic context to determine if the alleged air strikes against AQAP alienate the local Yemeni population, and strengthen anti-American sentiment. Taking this view reveals that short term tactical gains through drone strikes cause too much collateral damage and exacerbate rather than ameliorate the terrorist threat over the long term.

Three distinct forms of blowback are heavily cited as the cost of U.S. drones strikes in Yemen. Foremost, it has been asserted that U.S. drones cause purposeful retaliation by AQAP against the government of Yemen. Purposeful retaliation is most often demonstrated through public statements made by AQAP after an attack. Hours after a U.S. drone strike killed five suspected Al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen in March 2012, militants blew up a liquid-natural gas pipeline in Shabwah which transports gas to a facility whose leading stakeholder is the French oil company, Total.

The second form of blowback centers on collateral damage, the unintended death or injury of Yemen civilians, unrelated to AQAP targets. Al-Qaeda exploits U.S. errors in drone strikes, giving it ample material for propaganda. In effect, AQAP has a higher likelihood of recruiting new members and can increase sympathy for Al-Qaeda linked militants. Anger over collateral damage in this type of scenario has been demonstrated quite a few times since the U.S. began its drone campaign against AQAP. In 2010, AQAP’s sharpest gains domestically began with the botched Yemeni counterterrorism raid on ‘A’yd al-Shabwani and a U.S. drone strike that killed Marib’s deputy governor, Jabir al-Shabwani who was also known as a prominent sheik. Since al-Shabwani was a pro-government leader and had been asked to negotiate with tribes purportedly hiding Al-Qaeda militants on behalf of Sana’a, the news of the drone strike sparked outrage throughout Marib and resulted in a series of retaliatory attacks against military bases, oil pipelines, and electrical grids by Al Shabwan tribesmen. The collateral damage involved with this strike was a gift to the Al-Qaeda narrative, which cited the casualties as evidence of the incompetency of President Saleh and U.S. callousness.

The third form of blowback typically identified asserts that drones strikes help to further destabilize Yemen instead of providing more security. When state power is essentially exercised from above through both strikes and surveillance, it undermines the weak central government and leaves a security vacuum to be filled on the ground.  Given the central government’s limited state capacity, the ground is more easily controlled by insurgent groups. From this standpoint, drone strikes in Yemen indirectly caused the Ansar-Al Sharia movement to take control of the Southern Provinces. Partially due to the Arab Spring, the central government under President Saleh was unable to deliver any form of governance, law enforcement, or social services in the Shabwah and Abyan provinces throughout 2011. Conversely, the Southern provinces experienced a sharp increase in the number of U.S. drone strikes. Although the purpose was to provide security, the strikes intensified anti-regime sentiment and helped create a movement focused on the near enemy, the Saleh regime. Ansar al-Sharia represented itself as the means for expressing grievances with the government, and by providing rule of law and social services as a functioning state apparatus. As a result, Ansar al-Sharia was able to fill the void and win supporters within society while providing AQAP a safe-haven.

On the other hand, drone strikes in Yemen have been beneficial in the fight against AQAP. As previously stated, AQAP is plotting terrorist attacks against U.S. targets and maintains the capability to attack within U.S. borders. Compared to other military objectives in the “war on terror,” there are no troops on the ground in Yemen, reducing the cost of military intervention and anti-American resentment through occupation. In addition, military pressure on AQAP through occupation would likely inflict far more civilian casualties on the Yemeni population than collateral damage from drone strikes. From this standpoint, drones are seen as an efficient tool to gather intelligence and target AQAP members.

When direct action is taken, drone strikes are conducted in concert with the Yemeni government to avoid civilian casualty. President Hadi publicly endorsed U.S. drone strikes in September 2012, making Yemen a reliable counterterrorism partner. This factor is crucial when assessing the effectiveness of drones in Yemen under former President Saleh compared to President Hadi. While former President Saleh pledged Yemen’s support to the U.S. in the “war on terror,” U.S. officials and Yemeni experts questioned Saleh’s commitment and saw him as an unreliable partner and source of intelligence. John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, has made frequent public visits to Yemen over the past year. When speaking of President Hadi’s counterterrorism efforts, Brennan has stated that “the cooperation has been more consistent, more reliable and with a more committed and determined focus.” With this, the information provided by the Yemeni government under President Hadi has greatly improved the efficacy of the drone campaign, and helped in avoiding catastrophic mistakes.

The conventional understanding of drones and collateral damage is not a sufficient or systematic explanation of recruitment within the domestic context of Yemen. Christopher Swifts’ interviews with tribal leaders, Islamic Politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources all revealed that AQAP recruitment is not motivated solely by U.S. drone strikes, but driven by economic desperation. AQAP insurgents lure young Yemeni men with the promise of a rifle, a car, and a salary of four-hundred dollars a month, which is a fortune when half the population is living on less than two dollars a day. AQAP has employed a soft power approach by fulfilling social needs in order to build networks of mutual dependency.

Despite the general antipathy for drone strikes, a majority of the Yemeni’s interviewed expressed that AQAP posed a serious threat to their country and had a pragmatic view of the U.S. drone campaign. As long as drones target legitimate terrorists, Yemenis grudgingly acknowledge their utility. With this, it is important to note Yemen’s religious majority and nationalism. The population of Yemen is almost entirely Muslim, made up of Zaydis and Shaf’is. Zaydis are found mostly in North and Northwest Yemen and belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Zaydis form the the Huthi insurgent movement, and AQAP statements in Inspire have connected the movement to threats posed by Shi’a in eastern Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Since AQAP has attacked two Huthi processions in 2010 and threatened supporters, Zaydi Yemenis do not represent practical recruitment options for AQAP. On the hand, the majority of Yemenis are Shafi’is making up the South and East. The Shafi’is school follows one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence and is considered a relatively moderate form of Islam. While Islamic radicalism is prevalent within the country, Shafi’is is culturally very different and is not exactly fertile breeding grounds for extremist ideology. As a result, the Al-Qaeda ideology does not go hand-in-hand with the majority of the Yemeni people.

Analysis of AQAP’s history suggests that the group’s resiliency within Yemen is due to a group of local Yemeni leaders who understand the local language, tribal customs, and developed relationships with prominent sheiks. Unlike predecessor jihadist groups in Yemen, AQAP has exercised strategic discipline in creating coherent, but nuanced propaganda. The group assimilates broadly popular grievances into a single narrative proposing international jihad as the only solution. The group exploits common malcontent with the Yemeni government over injustices including corruption, the absence of public services and political reform, and unequal distribution of profits from oil. In addition, AQAP has not explicitly called for the outright dissolution of tribal identity like AQAM in Afghanistan Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan. Within Yemen, AQAP targets Western interests, Yemeni security officials, and economic sectors such as oil and tourism. The group has specifically avoided Yemeni civilian casualties in bombings and suicide attacks. Also, AQAP has avoided potentially divisive American and European targets, such as the many Western-language students, foreign aid, and medical workers who remained in Yemen until 2010. With this, AQAP leaders recognized the importance of managing perceptions in order to sustain legitimacy and have even denied responsibility for terrorist attacks that did not fit with its narrative. The most direct way to reduce AQAP’s viability in Yemen, while simultaneously limiting its capacity to attack the US, requires the removal of its local leadership through drone strikes who are responsible for the group’s strategic guidance.

With this, it important to note that drone strikes represent only one tool in the U.S.’s comprehensive policy towards Yemen. The costs of U.S. drone strikes correspond with three distinct forms of blowback that have helped to strengthen AQAP’s narrative and increased recruitment and sympathy for Al-Qaeda linked militants. However, the costs do not outweigh the utility of drone strikes against AQAP within the domestic context. While the U.S. acted more unilaterally in Yemen under President Saleh, the Obama Administration is now working in concert with the transitional government of President Hadi. With this, the relationship between the U.S. and Yemen has transformed into a working partnership in the fight against AQAP. As a partnership, this counterterrorism policy is beneficial for both Yemeni and international support.

While Yemen is facing a number of issues, debilitating AQAP represents the first step in improving the overall security situation. By targeting AQAP’s local leadership, the U.S. can eliminate the individuals who are most responsible for maintaining the group’s coherency and strategic guidance. Furthermore, it can be presumed that the AQAP members next in line will be less skilled and will be more prone to violence in order to consolidate power. The leadership will make more mistakes, such as targeting Yemeni civilians, and undermine the group’s legitimacy within Yemen.

Based on this analysis, the U.S. should halt signature strikes in Yemen until there is better intelligence on the ground. Since signature strikes are based on behavioral patterns instead of positive identification, they are more likely to kill Yemeni civilians and fuel sympathy and recruitments for AQAP. Although the Obama Administration should maintain the covert drone campaign, it would be beneficial for both the U.S. and the transitional government of President Hadi to target only key, local Yemeni leaders of AQAP.


Stacey Emker is a second year Master’s candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. She specializes in international security and foreign policy analysis with a focus on asymmetric warfare.


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