The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post report that the Obama administration has decided to move CIA drones into Yemen to step up the air campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The administration is right to be concerned that AQAP is taking advantage of Yemen’s political crisis. But relying on drones to roll back the terrorist group’s gains is the wrong prescription for that diagnosis. It is highly likely amid the chaos in Yemen that the blowback from relying on “death from above” will drive more recruits into AQAP and wipe out any small tactical gains. The best way to blunt AQAP advances is to help resolve the political crisis in Sana’a as rapidly as possible.
AQAP has emerged over the last several years as the terrorist group that presents the most direct threat to the United States. Al Qaeda Central’s operational capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan was degraded significantly even before the killing of Osama bin Laden. AQAP, one of the many regional Al Qaeda affiliates that have sprung up recently, was implicated in at least three attacks on the U.S. homeland since 2009: the Ft. Hood shootings in Texas, the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing over Detroit, and the foiled cargo aircraft bomb plot last fall in the United Kingdom.
U.S. officials are correct to focus their attention on countering AQAP. But that does not mean that drones—which have been effective in Pakistan—are a good option in Yemen.
The Obama administration significantly increased counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh because of the growing threat from AQAP. Direct military assistance to Yemen has gone up, and the Joint Special Operations Command has worked with Yemeni military forces on counterterrorism missions.
The escalating multisided fighting in Yemen throughout the spring, however, has diverted Yemeni forces away from counterterrorism and toward regime protection. Cooperation has “collapsed amid the political turmoil,” according to The Washington Post.
The absence of cooperation is precisely the problem with choosing this moment to increase airstrikes on AQAP. Yemen is a chaotic, confusing place in the best of times. Now, with a popular protest movement, top military commanders defecting, a violent split in the major tribal federation, and Islamists other than AQAP all competing with a very weak central government with a wounded president and other top leaders out of the country, getting good information on who to target with these airstrikes is practically impossible. There is real potential for U.S. airstrikes to either be misdirected or explicitly manipulated by local groups to target rivals.
While the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan has put Al Qaeda and other militants there under intense pressure, it also relies on significant human intelligence sources cultivated over years of conflict in neighboring Afghanistan to generate accurate targeting intelligence. Even so, civilian casualties and other collateral damage associated with the drones makes the campaign deeply unpopular with Pakistanis and reportedly motivated Faisal al-Shazaad to attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010.
No such human intelligence network exists in Yemen, which creates enormous potential for bad information to be used to generate potential targets. The United States has some experience with this in Yemen, unfortunately, with the 2010 airstrike that mistakenly killed the deputy governor of Maarib, Jaber al-Shabwani. The strike prompted his tribe to retaliate by destroying an oil pipeline, leading to clashes with Yemeni military forces.
Additionally, expanding operations to include, as The Wall Street Journal reports, individuals who fit a “pattern of life” similar to AQAP militants poses real risks of adding to our enemies rather than shrinking them. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said of this possibility: “Not all militants in Yemen are AQAP, but a really good way to make them all join up is to start shooting at them.”
Yemen faces an unimaginable series of immense challenges that pre-date the current political crisis. Oil production is collapsing in an economy enormously dependent on oil revenue. What’s more, dwindling water supply, an exploding population, and violent separatist movements in both the north and the south are all more pressing problems for Yemenis than the still-significant threat from AQAP. A U.S. policy that focuses exclusively on terrorism and relies on the controversial drones is guaranteed to further alienate the Yemeni population. That is no way to win a fight against AQAP.
The best way for the United States to roll back AQAP is to help resolve the political crisis crippling Yemen and help the post-Saleh government address the myriad challenges that face the Yemeni people. My colleague Ken Sofer and I put forward a plan for the Obama administration to use whatever admittedly limited leverage it has with the Yemeni government and work with key allies in the region to push the parties in Yemen toward a settlement and provide humanitarian relief and economic assistance for the Yemeni people.
The threat from AQAP is real. U.S. airstrikes and even drones can be a useful weapon against AQAP, but only if they are part of a broad U.S. policy toward Yemen. There are no easy or exclusively military solutions to the challenges in Yemen, and limiting the U.S. footprint in Yemen to missiles raining down from above risks making an already serious problem worse.
Ken Gude is the Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program and Ken Sofer is a Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.