Perhaps one of the most important developments in the war on al-Qaeda in the last two years has been the gradual demise of al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan as a result of the war of attrition carried out by the CIA’s Predator and Reaper drones. Hundreds of al-Qaeda and supporting Taliban militants have been hunted down and killed in this vast operation in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). But in a perfect example of the “whack-a-mole” paradigm for waging war on a stateless terrorist group like al-Qaeda, a virulent new al-Qaeda franchise has sprung up in Yemen known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
AQAP first made a name for itself when it dispatched a suicide bomber to kill Spanish tourists in Yemen in 2007. It was this regional franchise that also made headlines when it sent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, to blow up a passenger plane flying to Detroit on December 25, 2009, tried assassinating Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the head of Saudi counter terrorism, with a suicide bomb in 2009, and attempted to blow up UPS and FedEx planes with bombs hidden in ink cartridges in 2010. Most recently, in May 2012, Saudi intelligence foiled a plot by infamous AQAP bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri to create a new bomb based on PETN that could avoid detection by X-ray scanners at airports. The Yemeni military, however, failed to detect the AQAP terrorist who set off a bomb in the same month in Sana’a killing almost a hundred soldiers and bystanders (al-Jazeera, May 21). To compound matters a local pro-al-Qaeda militant group known as the Ansar al-Shari’a took advantage of the chaos surrounding the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 to establish an emirate based on the town of Zinjibar in the strategic coastal province of Abyan. This group’s ultimate goal is to overthrow the secular government of Yemen and create a Shari’a-based caliphate modeled on the Taliban.
In response to these alarming developments, the Obama administration has tasked the CIA and the U.S. Army’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) with ramping up a an assassination campaign designed to kill AQAP terrorists and weaken related Ansar al-Shari’a militants. The Pentagon and CIA decided to turn to drones when Tomahawk cruise missile strikes proved to be too clumsy, on one occasion leading to the death of dozens of Bedouin civilians at al-Ma’ajala (Abyan Governorate) in December, 2009 (al-Jazeera, May 9).
The U.S. drone attacks started off slowly in 2009 then reached a crescendo in the spring of 2012. The stepped up pace of the Yemeni drone campaign can be seen from the fact that there were 4 drone strikes in 2009, 10 in 2011 and 25 by the beginning of July 2012 (i.e. more this spring than in all the previous years combined). The drone campaign has been the subject of less controversy and opposition than the Pakistani drone operations. This is largely due to the fact that the new president of Yemen, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, has worked closely with the United States against the terrorist threat to his country. The Yemeni Air Force, for example, has also been involved in bombing Ansar al-Shari’a targets in Abyan Governorate in an attempt to dislodge the militants (Yemen Post, May 23). There have also been reports in the Arab media of U.S. trainers working directly with Yemeni forces to help them retake districts lost to AQAP (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 19).
The Pentagon/CIA drones appear to be flown from either Camp Lemonier, Djibouti (home to the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa – CJTF-HOA) or from an undisclosed base built somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. The majority of the drone strikes appear to be in Shabwah Governorate, a known hideout for AQAP where they have the support of local tribes, and in Abyan Governorate, which was largely taken over by Ansar al-Shari’a. Yemeni sources report that the drones are directly assisting the Yemeni military operations in these areas (Yemen Post, June 11).
There are similarities in trends between the drone strikes in Yemen and the more widely publicized strikes in Pakistan:
In Yemen the drones seem to be targeting easily monitored vehicles carrying terrorists, instead of houses, with the aim of avoiding civilian “collateral damage” deaths. As in Pakistan there have nonetheless been civilians killed and this has led to protests by angry tribesmen relatives of the slain civilians.
There has been a move from more limited “personality strikes” (i.e. drone strikes on well -known terrorists whose names are on a kill list) to “signature strikes” (strikes on those whose observable “pattern of life” actions would seem to indicate they are terrorists), a broadening of target sets first discerned in Pakistan in 2008.
The precision of the strikes indicates that the CIA has established a network of spies and informers that have been relaying the positions of the terrorists to drone operators as in Pakistan’s FATA. As in Pakistan, voices have been raised against the drone strikes in Yemen’s parliament as well as the brutal killings by militants of those who are said to be spies working to help guide the drones.
As in the early days of the drone strikes in Pakistan, there has also been a trend whereby the Yemeni government tries to deflect domestic criticism of the CIA drone strikes on Yemeni citizens by claiming that their own air force carried out the strikes. In Yemen, however, this is improbable, in that the outdated Yemeni Air Force Mig-23s and Mig-29s are incapable of making precision strikes (especially at night) on moving vehicles.
As in Pakistan it is difficult to discern the overall impact of the drone strikes but they have definitely forced AQAP to remain in hiding to avoid being killed by the constantly present drones. The drones may have also inadvertently led to further “accidental” recruits among the relatives of tribesmen killed in errant strikes.
The major differences are found in the more prominent role played by JSOC in the Yemeni campaign, the more direct role President Obama has in choosing the targets and the increasing role that the drones play in supporting the Yemeni army in its ground operations against the militants in the spring of 2012.  The drones, for example, were used to blow up AQAP ammunition depots and to hit the militants’ defensive positions in ground operations carried out by the Yemeni army in June.
As in Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to believe that the threat from al-Qaeda operatives warrants a stepped-up policy of preemptive strikes to deter terrorists through “suppression fire” or through actual assassinations of key terrorist operators. This policy exists despite an inevitable blowback of criticism from those in Yemen, the greater Muslim world and West who are opposed to the drone strikes on humanitarian grounds or because of the oft repeated claim that “they make more terrorists than they kill.”
Unlike the drone campaign in Pakistan’s FATA region which is being waged primarily by CIA drones directed from Langley, Virginia, the majority of drone strikes in Yemen are being flown by JSOC remote pilots flying their UAVs from Creech and Nellis airbases in Nevada. The drone campaign seems to have instilled a climate of fear among AQAP terrorists who do not know when or where the ever-present Predator and Reaper drones will strike. This, combined with the killing of over a dozen high-ranked terrorists (most recently Fahd al-Quso, an al-Qaeda operative with a $5 million bounty on his head for alleged involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole), has disrupted further terrorist attacks on American interests. This is certainly a prime strategic objective of the Obama administration, which fears the impact that a terrorist strike from al-Qaeda’s most active branch could have on the November U.S. presidential elections.
Brian Glyn Williams is the author of a civilian version of a field manual for the US army entitled Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War (University of Pennsylvania, 2012), which analyzes the drone war in Pakistan and other aspects of this conflict. His articles on drones and terrorism can be found on his website at brianglynwilliams.com.
1. For the role of President Obama in choosing targets from a “kill-list,” see “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times. May 29, 2012.