Drone Warfare in Yemen: A Catalyst for the Growth and Evolution of AQAP

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 17

Mural in Sana'a (Source: AFP)

The first known targeted assassination using a drone took place in Yemen on November 3, 2002. The drone launched a hellfire missile that struck a Land Cruiser carrying six suspected members of al-Qaeda, including Sinan al-Harithi, thought to have been involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, and a naturalized U.S. citizen named Abu Ahmad al-Hijazi (BBC, November 5, 2002). From 2002 to 2011, there were an estimated 25 attacks on targets in Yemen by U.S. operated drones, although all but the attack on al-Harithi occurred after 2009.

President Barack Obama’s administration, far more than his predecessor, fully embraced drone-based targeted assassinations and “signature strikes.” Obama’s administration oversaw a marked increase in the number of drone strikes in Yemen from 2012 onward. Since 2012, the United States has carried out at least a 118 drone attacks on individuals and groups in Yemen.

With the advent of the Saudi- and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed war in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has considerably expanded its operations. Rarely targeted by Saudi forces, it is now flush with cash, recruits and weapons, thanks to the fracturing of the Yemeni armed forces and the absence, especially in the south, of a functioning national government.

While AQAP has benefited from Yemen’s multi-actor civil war, it also has benefited significantly from the U.S.-led drone war. Apart from a brief period between 2012 and 2014 when it found itself under pressure from tribal militias, the Yemeni armed forces and Houthi rebels, AQAP continued to expand despite the Obama administration’s campaign of drone strikes. Rather than having a negative impact on AQAP, the drone strikes in fact aided its recruitment efforts and, critically, have acted as a powerful catalyst for the evolution of the organization.

Watchtowers of the Skies

The insect-like hum of the engines of Predator and Reaper drones is often heard in rural Yemen, especially in the south, where AQAP has long maintained its strongholds. The incessant buzz of their engines, and the occasional glint of a drone banking in the sky, are reminders to Yemenis that a strike could come at any time. Yemenis are well aware that the drones are watching them, beaming their images back to places like Creech Air Force base in Nevada, where some of the drones are piloted by men sitting in converted shipping containers.

Most Yemenis — with the exception of Yemen’s president in exile, who praised the use drones and was vehemently condemned for doing so — regard them as the weapon of cowards (Yemen Times, October 10, 2013). The men who operate the drones are invulnerable, immune from harm. Many Yemenis know that the drones’ infrared cameras can see through the walls of their homes and that the most private moments of their lives can be watched by men and women thousands of miles away. To say that this breeds resentment is an understatement.

The presence of drones in the skies above Yemen is a kind of psychological warfare. Much has been written about the psychological effects of drones on the communities that they patrol. [1] As Gregoire Chamayou, author of A Theory of the Drone, argues, drones “amount to a psychic imprisonment within a perimeter no longer defined by bars, barriers and walls, but by the endless circling of flying watchtowers above.” [2] When torture is used — and the use of drones could potentially be viewed as a kind of low-grade torture on a mass scale — it is all but certain that some of those tortured will break but still others will remain defiant, determined to exact revenge.

The word “thar” is often heard in Yemen. It is most often used to describe the need, indeed the demand, for revenge for a relative or tribe member who is unjustly killed. Thar is a powerful force within Yemeni culture, and it is a force that AQAP has harnessed. [3]

Aiding Recruitment

On December 12, 2013, four hellfire missiles were fired at a wedding convoy just outside of Radaa in southern Yemen (al-Jazeera, December 14, 2013). At least twelve civilians were killed in the strike. Internal investigations carried out by the U.S. government concluded that all of those killed were members of al-Qaeda. Details of this report were never released. The family members of those killed, who were later paid some compensation for their losses, dispute that finding.

The government has a policy of counting all military age males killed in a “strike zone” as enemy combatants unless they are posthumously proved to be innocent. [4] [5] This policy artificially reduces or eliminates the possibility of civilian deaths, at least in the case of military aged males.

Such a fluid and flawed understanding of who belongs to al-Qaeda has helped AQAP’s recruitment efforts. These are two-pronged: first AQAP argues that the United States and its drones do not differentiate between those who belong to the organization and those who do not. Thus, they might as well join AQAP, the only group that is dedicated to fighting the Americans and their drones. Second, AQAP — which has to a great degree indigenized itself and is trying to weave itself into Yemen’s tribal fabric — offers men the opportunity to exact vengeance, to in effect achieve thar.

AQAP has in many respects de-prioritized the importance of members’ and operatives’ strict adherence to its radical understanding of Islam. This is particularly so at the lower and middle levels of the organization. It is often the desire for thar that binds men together rather than an acceptance of AQAP’s militant Salafist beliefs.

AQAP has cleverly used the impotence that many Yemeni men feel in the face of a largely untouchable opponent to bolster its efforts to recruit men to the growing ranks of its fighters. While the use of drones has aided AQAP’s recruitment efforts, this is only one of the ways in which the use of drones has strengthened AQAP.

A Powerful Catalyst

In his book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, author John Robb argues persuasively that insurgent groups possess many advantages over the forces of a nation state. [6] Among these is their organizational structure, which increasingly mirrors an open source community network. Such a structure allows a group to rapidly modify its strategies, quickly develop and test new tactics and, in short, to evolve in a more dynamic manner than the rigidly hierarchical forces fielded by nation states.

AQAP is an excellent example of an insurgent/terrorist group that has fully embraced such a structure. In the past, AQAP was far more hierarchical, less open to recruits who did not share its religious beliefs and, as a result, much slower to respond to emergent threats, but thanks partly to drone warfare and to Yemen’s chaotic political landscape, this is no longer the case. AQAP has transformed itself into an organization that is pragmatic and increasingly nimble.

Drones have successfully targeted a number of mid and high-level AQAP operatives. The use of drones for surveillance and assassination has put pressure on AQAP, particularly prior to 2015. However, far from disrupting the organization, this pressure has acted as a catalyst for the group’s development of a range of new strategies and organizational structures designed to mitigate the threat posed by drones.

Drones and, to a lesser degree, ground-based operations by U.S. special forces have acted as a form of natural selection for AQAP operatives and for the larger organization. Those operatives who are sloppy and do not maintain operational security — namely the requirement not to use mobile phones and to compartmentalize operations — are naturally “weeded out.” [7] Meanwhile, those operatives and upper-level leaders who maintain rigorous operational security protocols succeed in that they live to fight on and train the next generation of operatives. To that end, AQAP’s leadership has instituted a kind of “apprenticeship program” whereby operatives with specialized skills and knowledge are shadowed, at least for a while, by others who can replace them if they are killed.

Next Steps

AQAP, like Islamic State (IS), has a keen interest in developing and using its own drones. While there are as yet no examples of AQAP using weaponized drones (IS, for its part, has used them in Iraq with some success), it is using them for surveillance (The New Arab, November 14, 2016).

AQAP has benefited from an influx of advanced weaponry to Yemen from the external actors in Yemen’s civil war — namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The group has also seized large quantities of medium and heavy weapons from the Yemeni armed forces.

Most critically, AQAP’s membership now includes operatives who were formerly part of the Yemeni armed forces. Some of these men — many of whom have joined AQAP simply because of the pay — bring with them engineering expertise of all types, expertise with hand launched drones and, in some cases, considerable training in conventional warfare tactics and techniques.

While there is no clear evidence of AQAP using anything but commercially available drones, it is all but certain that military grade hand launched drones are available on the thriving black market in Yemen. It is highly likely that AQAP will acquire — or may have already acquired — these drones and either use them for surveillance or re-engineer them to carry ordinance.

Much like militaries around the world, AQAP, like other insurgent groups, recognizes the many ways that drones can be used to conduct surveillance on and attack enemies while minimizing the risk to its fighters. Just as AQAP’s organizational structure is making it more nimble than its enemies, the same structure fosters and rewards the rapid development of new tactics. These new tactics are sure to include — and in the near future even rely on — drone technology.

The use of drones to hunt and kill people from thousands of miles away appeals to politicians and the militaries they oversee precisely because there is no risk to those operating the drones. Similarly, there are few questions from the American public when drone strikes occur, as they do every month in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, as desirable as the use of drones may seem in the short term, the consequences of their use over the long term are likely to be profound as the groups they seek to target adapt, evolve and come to use the same technology in even more creative and disruptive ways than the nation states they oppose.

Just as harsh and challenging natural environments spur evolutionary change, the same kinds of pressure, albeit artificial, are being applied to AQAP. It has to rapidly adapt to new threats and new technologies. If it does not, then its members, and ultimately the organization itself, will die. As Dominic Johnson points out in his paper entitled, “Darwinian Selection in Asymmetric Warfare: The Natural Advantage of Insurgents and Terrorists,” prey adapts faster than its predators. [8] However, at this point AQAP has little to fear. It has never before controlled more territory, been better funder or better armed than it is today.



[1] See: James Cavallaro, Stephan Sonnenberg, and Sarah Knuckey, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, Stanford: International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School; New York: NYU School of Law, Global Justice Clinic, 2012.

[2] Gregoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, The New Press, 2013 (pg. 45).

[3] See: Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Brookings Institution Press, March 2013.

[4] See: Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012.Cite TD pg. 147

[5] Gregoire Chamayou argues that, “contrary to widespread legend, the drone is in reality related to a nondiscriminatory weapon of a new kind: by ruling out the possibility of combat, the drone destroys the very possibility of any clear differentiation between combatants and noncombatants (A Theory of the Drone, pg. 147)

[6] John Robb, Brave New War: The Next State of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, Wiley, April 2008.

[7] The heroin like draw of mobile phones and smart phones has been one of AQAP’s greatest challenges in terms of operational security. AQAP, just as every other terrorist/ insurgent group, knows that they can be tracked and targeted through their use of mobile phones, yet their operatives find it hard to resist the temptation to use them for both operational and personal matters.

[8] Dominic Johnson, “Darwinian Selection in Asymmetric Warfare: The Natural Advantage of Insurgents and Terrorists,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2009 (89-112).