The Dangerous US Game in Yemen
What cannot be disputed is that the strikes, especially those that killed civilians and important tribal figures, were giving valuable ammunition to Al Qaeda for its recruitment campaign in Yemen and its propaganda battle to destabilize the US-Yemen counterterrorism alliance. Yemeni government officials said the series of strikes from December to May had killed more than 200 people, only forty of whom were affiliated with Al Qaeda. “It is incredibly dangerous, what the US is trying to do in Yemen at the moment, because it really fits into AQAP’s broader strategy, in which it says Yemen is not different from Iraq and Afghanistan,” asserted Princeton University’s Gregory Johnsen in June 2010, after Amnesty International released a report documenting the use of US munitions in the Yemen strikes. “They are able to make the argument that Yemen is a legitimate front for jihad,” said Johnsen, who in 2009 served as a member of USAID’s conflict assessment team for Yemen.
In the summer of 2010, after months of sustained US and Yemeni airstrikes and raids, AQAP hit back. In June a group of AQAP operatives carried out a bold raid on the Aden division of Yemen’s secret police, the Political Security Organization. During an early-morning flag ceremony at the PSO compound, the operatives opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades as they stormed the gates. They gunned down at least ten security officers and three cleaning women. The purpose of the raid was to free suspected militants being held by the PSO, and it was successful. That raid was followed by a sustained assassination campaign aimed at bumping off high-level Yemeni military and intelligence officials. During Ramadan, which began in August, AQAP launched a dozen attacks. By September as many as sixty officials had been killed, with a substantial number shot dead by assassins on motorcycles. This method of attack became so common that the government banned motorcycles in urban areas in Abyan.
Then a plan to attack a US target unfolded that would come to be known as the “parcel bomb” plot. On October 29, Americans watched as breaking news coverage showed US warplanes escorting Emirates Flight 201 to an emergency landing at JFK Airport. Images were broadcast of other planes being swept at Philadelphia and Newark airports. That night, Obama said that explosives on the planes had posed a “credible terrorist threat.” None of the bombs detonated. But once the Yemen connection was clear—the explosive material, concealed in printer cartridges, had been shipped from Yemen—there was no debate within the administration: all eyes focused on AQAP.
Foust, the former DIA analyst, characterizes Obama’s response like this: “He immediately sent drones and special operations guys to Yemen. It was immediately, Let’s send JSOC. Send in the ninjas, is what he does.” Without providing details, which he says are classified, Foust asserts that he has seen targeted killing operations conducted that he believes were warranted, and he does not believe such strikes are “theoretically a bad thing.” He was deeply concerned, however, about the standards that were being used to determine who would be targeted. “Frankly, most of the time when I was working on Yemen was spent arguing” with Special Operations Command-Yemen and other DIA analysts “about evidentiary standards,” he recalls. “The evidentiary standard for actually killing people off, to me, is frighteningly low.”
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The popular uprising against the Yemeni regime this past winter sent the US counterterrorism community scrambling to develop contingency plans. Saleh’s fall “offers an opportunity for the Yemeni people to build a more modern state,” says Nakhleh. At the same time, it “creates a challenge for the United States as Washington continues its counterterrorism policy against Al Qaeda and its franchise group in Yemen, AQAP.”
“It is something that we spend a lot of time working on. I know I lose a little sleep at night thinking about this particular problem,” Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said recently. According to Foust, plans are being made to move the center of counterterrorism operations to Djibouti, the current hub of US operations against Libya, “if relations with the next [Yemeni] government don’t work out.” But, he says, of more concern is “what happens to the [US] training mission, as well as the [intelligence] collection programs in place—no one knows if or how those would be affected by a new government. We don’t have good ties with the opposition movement, which is itself chaotic and will probably begin infighting soon anyway, so it’s tough to call how they’ll react.” Saleh’s fall “could certainly have a negative impact on US CT operations in Yemen,” says Johnsen, adding, “I’m particularly worried that AQAP is gaining weapons and money in some parts of the country as the military begins to break down in outlying areas.”
Yemen “has a number of more pressing problems that will, if left unchecked, all help AQAP gain strength in the coming years,” Johnsen cautions. “In Yemen, there is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP. The US simply can’t bomb them out of existence. That has been tried before in Yemen and failed.”
There is no doubt that when President Obama took office, Al Qaeda had resurrected its shop in Yemen. But how big a threat AQAP actually posed to the United States or Saleh is the subject of much debate. What was almost entirely undiscussed was whether US actions—the targeted killings, the Tomahawk and drone strikes—caused blowback and whether some of AQAP’s attacks were motivated by the undeclared war the United States was fighting in Yemen. “We are not generating good will in these operations,” says Nakhleh. “We might target radicals and potential radicals, but unfortunately in a crisis other things and other people are being destroyed or killed. So in the long run it is not necessarily going to help. To me the bigger issue is the whole issue of radicalization. How do we pull the rug from under it?”
It was the Bush administration that declared the world a battlefield where any country would be fair game for targeted killings. But it was President Obama, with Yemen as the laboratory, who put a bipartisan stamp on this paradigm—which will almost certainly endure well beyond his time in office. “The global war on terror has acquired a life of its own,” says Colonel Lang. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. And the fact that this counterterrorism/counterinsurgency industry evolved into this kind of thing, involving all these people—the foundations and the journalists and the book writers and the generals and the guys doing the shooting—all of that together has a great, tremendous amount of inertia that tends to keep it going in the same direction.” He adds, “It continues to roll. It will take a conscious decision on the part of civilian policy-makers, somebody like the president, for example, to decide that, ‘OK, boys, the show’s over.’” But Obama, he says, is far from deciding the show’s over. “It seems that this is going to go on for a long time.”