While Yemen’s first drone strike of 2011 might have sounded a false alarm, no such doubts surround today’s strike in the southern Shabwah governorate. According to local witnesses and several journalists, a drone was seen hovering over Al-Awash of Nisab district when a first strike was launched Saud Al-Harad, a mid-level commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These missiles reportedly missed their target, leading to a divergence in accounts.
One version of the story has Saud switching cars with his nephews in the Al-Lejaj area. Mohsa’ed Mubarak Al-Harad and Abdullah Mubarak Al-Harad end up the casualties regardless, as a second version takes them down after they flee their vehicle.
Both versions lead to the same conclusion: the Obama administration remains clueless during Yemen’s revolution.
With the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) kicking around new measures to finalize a power transfer with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who just rejected an agreement again), the Obama administration continues to feed the political and information vacuum it has torn open. Four days into bin Laden’s death and still no update on Yemen’s political crisis, either from the White House or State Department. Apparently the state now fails to meet the hype set by U.S. counter-terrorism officials, who regularly equate AQAP's threat to al-Qaeda’s Pakistani cells.
Or maybe they wish to escalate Predator strikes in relative silence.
As explored after another questionable strike in Pakistan, one that killed dozens of civilians in the wake of Raymond Davis’s release, drones can function as a means of divination. Drone strikes without accompanying action on the political and economic fronts portend ominously for the situation as a whole, and this is certainly the case in Yemen. Locals report an increase in drone patrols since the revolution began, hinting at escalation in U.S. military operations. By launching a strike so soon after bin Laden’s death, the raid also sends a message that the Obama administration is now turning to al-Qaeda’s other havens.
Thursday’s attack was 2011's “first drone strike,” a U.S. official confirmed, who added that drones have patrolled suspected areas of Yemen since 2010. Although U. S. strikes ground to half after an errant strike in Wadi Abida, Maarib killed its deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani, the U.S. official explained that no strikes have been launched due to a lack of sufficient targeting information. This suggests that the CIA is still actively hunting al-Qaeda operatives and will take action if sufficient information is discovered.
Unfortunately these attacks, even if rare, pose a significant danger to U.S. policy in Yemen. Largely one-dimensional (a dilemma concealed by shallow political and economic assistance), America’s militaristic strategy cannot absorb the damage of a failed strike. As witnessed over the last year, one errant missile is all that’s needed to spike anti-Americanism and escalate tensions with Saleh.
These strikes become even more dangerous when placed within the context of Yemen’s revolution. Propping up Saleh and assisting in his stall tactics, then having to “step in” as his forces withdraw from AQAP’s front, represents a total policy failure in one of al-Qaeda's key battlefields. AQAP militants have grown especially active of late, especially in Abyan governorate. Units also operate openly in Shabwah, Hadramawt, Maarib and Lahj.
Some reports have attempted to trace Yemen's strike back to bin Laden’s intelligence cache, even though U.S. officials have already ruled this possibility out. However this strike wasn’t the produce of brilliant counter-terrorism - and the finest counter-terrorism still functions as a poor substitute for counterinsurgency. At 18,000 square miles, Shabwah is Yemen’s 4th largest governorate. Like most of Yemen, it requires vast improvements in all areas of social development, improvements that will never come from the central government. Washington has allocated too little aid to Yemen in comparison to military support, and what economic aid is given falls prey to a corrupt system.
To many tribes drones are their only contact with America. The image itself is extremely powerful, a psychological abandonment that carries a deadly message: America has nothing to offer except Predators. Add in Washington’s inflammatory response to Yemen’s revolution and this policy carries far more risk than reward. The most America can do is kill a terrorist, while the slightest mistake can create more.
Thursday’s strike landed amid threats of a 9/11 anniversary plot and increased speculation on Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP's propaganda chief and a suspected resident of Shabwah. To be clear al-Awlaki is a potent force in his own right, specifically when operating in his local environment. However he lacks the credentials and experience to wear al-Qaeda’s global crown. At best he can provide a new focal point for al-Qaeda, which in turn generates new tensions between Saleh, Washington and Yemenis.
Yet these events have been linked together to further justify military escalation in Yemen, a counterproductive policy in the long-term.
The Obama administration has already given a clear indication that it intends to pursue the war against al-Qaeda with minimal change in strategy: rely on friendly dictators and unilateral military operations. This policy would commit a grave strategic error so soon after the “triumph” of bin Laden’s death. The White House cannot continue protecting Saleh while simultaneously escalating drone attacks, at least not if Washington actually expects to stabilize Yemen and win over its people. Drones cannot serve as America’s only message to pro-democracy protesters - that message must be unequivocally democratic.
The “War on Terror” is far from over despite bin Laden's personal end, and the new chapter is already mirroring the old one.