The U.S. Needs a More Broad-based Strategy to Combat Al Qaeda in Yemen

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For most of the past decade, Yemen has remained on the periphery of American national security policy. During this time, officials in the administration, Department of Defense, State Department, and Intelligence Community have been unable to devote as much attention as needed to Yemen due to American engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011 along with the September 2012 protests and embassy attacks in response to an American-made anti-Muslim video have demonstrated the importance of security in states like Yemen.

Our nation’s continued involvement in Yemen is an important component of our national security. Despite all of the other challenges our country currently faces worldwide, our commitment in Yemen should be strengthened. Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the Al Qaeda (AQ) node based out of Yemen, is widely believed to be the most lethal of the AQ affiliates, and has attempted on several occasions to attack the United States directly and harbored, until his killing in September 2011, Anwar al Alwaki, a U.S. citizen and extremist cleric responsible for the radicalization of the Fort Hood shooter and the 2009 Detroit Christmas Day bomber.

The Arab Spring, and resulting uprising in Yemen that began in January 2011, as well as an ongoing Houthi rebellion in the north and secessionist movement in the south, have diverted the attention of the Yemeni security forces from counterterrorism efforts, and at the same time, restricted U.S. forces’ ability to operate on the ground.  As a result, AQAP has gained strength and operating room amidst the power vacuum.  According to April 2012 estimates by White House counter-terrorism advisor and nominee for CIA Director John Brennan, AQAP has more than a thousand members in Yemen and close ties to al Qaeda Core in Pakistan.  The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified in early 2011 that AQAP remains the AQ node most likely to conduct a transnational attack.

Yemen is a fragile and challenged nation, but it is not yet failed – there are concrete steps our country can take to help stabilize Yemen, strengthen its capacity for countering AQAP, and prevent it from becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia.  The Obama Administration’s Yemen Strategic Plan is a good start, focused on combating AQAP in the short term, increasing development assistance to meet long term challenges, and building international support in order to maximize global efforts to stabilize Yemen.  However, the continued excessive use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) airstrikes remains an unaddressed issue.  Policymakers should conduct a full assessment of their impact on the Yemeni population and altering their use.

The use of airstrikes conducted by UAVs, colloquially known as ‘drones,’ has rapidly expanded during the past decade.  However, little has been done to study their long-term effects on populations and American objectives in Yemen.  Although touted as “cost-effective,” the true cost of drone strikes among target populations is not adequately taken into account. Drone strikes create a number of problems hindering our objectives – including providing propaganda material for terrorist groups, fueling hostility, increasing retaliatory attacks by AQAP and other extremist groups, and undermining the authority of the already fragile Yemeni government.

President Obama authorized at least 42 strikes in Yemen in 2012, a dramatic increase from years prior. Drone strikes have been successful in targeting and eliminating AQAP leadership; however, American drones have killed twelve times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high level AQ leaders since 2008.  Killing low-level militants by drone rather than attempting to capture can lead to a loss of potential intelligence.

Despite the success in targeting AQ members, drones alone do not suffice as an American counterterrorism strategy in Yemen.  As American drone strikes have increased in frequency, so have retaliatory attacks from AQAP.  On September 11, 2012 AQAP attempted to assassinate Yemen’s defense minister via car bomb, killing seven bodyguards and five civilians in the heart of Sana’a.  This attack was viewed as a direct response to the American drone strike that took out top AQAP operative Said al-Shehri earlier that month.  Even more alarmingly, AQAP has now offered a bounty for the killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Geral Feierstein, or any American soldiers in Yemen.

While there is no easy solution to the ongoing instability and AQAP presence in Yemen, the U.S. should avoid a drone-centric counterterrorism policy in Yemen. The current American policy, while avoiding risk for Americans on the ground, ignores the very real potential for blowback in the long-term. Instead, the administration should limit drone strikes to only targeting high value individuals; use drone strikes as part of a wider strategy that attempts to address some of the Yemen-specific grievances that are the root causes of terrorism; restore American and allied Special Forces presence in Yemen from the pre-2011 unrest; and work towards building effective Yemeni security forces that can pursue AQAP targets on the ground.

A combination of limited high value target drone strikes, increased non-military aid and training of Yemeni forces for counterterrorism efforts are more likely to achieve our nation’s goal of a secure and stable Yemen.


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