The Most Dangerous Game: U.S. Military Engagement in Yemen

American military operations in Yemen have come under criticism for both ethical and tactical reasons. Source: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images.

Why  America’s covert campaign in Yemen has gone awry.

As the U.S. prepares to withdraw its military presence from Afghanistan in 2014, the intelligence community has begun shifting the majority of its attention from the Af-Pak region, the mountainous area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the tiny country of Yemen. Faced with a plethora of domestic problems – such as a fragmented government that is incapable of effectively governing large swathes of the country, and a fast-depleting supply of water – Yemen teeters on the precipice of instability.

Home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a political insurgency known as Ansar-al-Sharia, Yemen has become a hotspot for U.S. drone strikes. Likewise, it has also become home to a rapidly increasing contingent of American Special Forces. However, it is likely that the sprawling U.S. military presence in the country has exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, the pre-existing strains on regional stability these forces were deployed to resolve.

A faulty drone campaign  

By the end of the year, insurgents and terrorists in Yemen are on course to be on the receiving end of more drone strikes than their counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 9/11.[1] Though many American citizens are at least partially aware of this phenomenon, perhaps only a fraction understand why.

After the Af-Pak based branch of al-Qaeda was decimated by a decade long U.S. operation in the region, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now labeled the deadliest component of the militant Islamist organization. Though AQAP is primarily based in Yemen, analysts believe that it is capable of inflicting widespread chaos. For example, the mass shutdown of U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa at the end of August occurred as a precaution against a potential AQAP attack to mark the end of Ramadan. AQAP was also the group behind the thwarted Christmas day bomb plot of 2009, in which an AQAP operative attempted to detonate plastic explosives on a flight headed to Detroit.[2] With a contingent of a thousand members, and growing, AQAP is considered the most imminent threat to U.S. national security.

To combat this perceived danger, the U.S. has vigorously employed its Afghan playbook in Yemen. This consists of extensive “surgical strikes” on al-Qaeda operatives through the use of American Special Forces led raids and CIA operated drone strikes. However, a vocal, growing body of Yemen experts warns that such a strategy may in fact be counter-productive. According to Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, U.S. attacks in the country have not been as effective as they were in Pakistan. He argues that this is because al-Qaeda operatives deployed to the Af-Pak territory were not indigenous to the region, as most of al-Qaeda’s recruits came from Arab countries, rather than the local population. This may partially explain why U.S. operations in Yemen have been much more controversial, and less successful than their Afghani predecessors.

First, as so many of the Yemeni based terrorists continue to live near their families, this makes it harder for troops to distinguish between individuals in al-Qaeda and members of the surrounding communities. Thus, there is a much greater chance of incurring collateral damage during bombardment, as it is difficult to distinguish between targets and innocent civilians via satellite imagery. For example, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a sixteen-year-old U.S. citizen, and the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a high-prolife AQAP leader, was accidentally killed during an attack intended to execute his father. Though Abdulrahman’s death was unintentional, it sparked mass outrage in Yemen that encouraged further terrorist recruitment.

Second, even when these strikes are accurate, the death of the intended targets can incite additional hatred towards the United States in the targeted community. Even if they don’t fully buy into al-Qaeda’s ideology, the departed individuals’ relatives may join forces with AQAP merely to seek revenge. In contrast, the assassination of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan meant little to the surrounding communities, since they were Arab foreigners residing in Non-Arab states.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this means that Yemeni citizens no longer need to travel abroad to receive extensive combat training. Logically, this allows AQAP to recruit a substantial number of young, would-be militants, who would prefer to stay within the country to remain close to their kin. This is further magnified by the fact that Yemen already provides al-Qaeda with a fertile source of recruits because of its high unemployment rate, limited natural resources, and fragmented political structure. These factors have produced a large contingent of disaffected youth within the country, because they are not only unable to participate in the elite-dominated political system, but also unable to secure steady, long-term employment. Thus, these individuals are much more willing to turn to militant activities than the majority of their peers in the Arab World.[3]

As a result, though the U.S. has unremittingly bombarded AQAP for the past four years, the organizations’ ranks have swelled from three hundred members to over one thousand.[4] This calls the American strategy of targeted killings into question, and should prompt policymakers to think of more effective ways to prevent the expansion of al-Qaeda.

Echoes of Afghanistan

What’s more, a growing body of military experts believes that the United States has begun to err in its conflict with AQAP, by conflating the “insurgency” in Yemen with the dangerous terrorist cells in the country. According to Abaas Studies and Research, a Yemeni think-tank, one in every six drone strikes conducted by U.S. forces was targeted at a participant in the Yemeni civil war, rather than a member of AQAP.[5]

This is arguably analogous to the “mistake” that some individuals believe the U.S. made in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban had the limited, regional objective of controlling the Afghani government and enforcing strict Sharia law throughout the country. This contrasts with the Afghani branch of al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, that held the global objective of combating what it saw as a decadent, secular, western order.

Though the Taliban had arguably objectionable intentions from a liberal, Eurocentric perspective – their existence did not constitute a threat to U.S. national security. Despite this, the U.S. still conducted a lengthy and costly “counterinsurgency” campaign in Afghanistan to combat their presence. This entailed the deployment of more than a hundred thousand men to the country over the course of a decade. The military undertook this course of action because many believed the widespread theory that the Taliban would provide a “safe haven” for al-Qaeda to recruit and train more operatives in the Af-Pak region, if we only left a small military footprint in the area.

Similarly, in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has the principal ambition of executing mass attacks against the U.S. and her allies. In contrast, the movement known as Ansar-al-Sharia, ostensibly a political front for AQAP, has the limited, regional objective of re-establishing strict Islamist rule throughout Yemen. As previously mentioned, this parallels the Taliban’s goals for Afghanistan. Additionally, as the current state of Yemen was only formed in 1990, there are several other insurgent movements throughout the country that also oppose the national government in San’aa. Although insurgencies like Ansar-al-Sharia may have regional goals that the U.S. public finds abhorrent, their malevolent ambitions do not constitute a valid reason for the U.S. to engage in war with them, because they do not pose a threat to domestic security.

Traditionally, U.S. officials took the lessons they had learnt from Afghanistan to heart and chose to remain as bystanders in the Yemeni civil war. American officers have mostly allowed their Yemeni counter-parts to handle the insurgent movements on their own, although U.S. Special Forces have trained portions of the Yemeni Army. Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence indicates the U.S. may have reverted to type and begun targeting Yemeni insurgent movements in addition to AQAP through kinetic actions. This trend has been documented since 2012 by the Long War Journal, and was also stated in a recent report published by the Human Rights Watch. According to the report, “some…of those killed by the United States outside AQAP’s core membership may have been fighters in the domestic insurgency against the Yemeni government…for example, some airstrikes launched by the United States apparently killed combatants as they wore suicide vests and were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces.”[6]

This development contrasts with previous statements made by the National Security Council that the U.S., “will not, get involved in a broader counter-insurgency effort. That would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people.”[7]

Corruption impedes American operations  

Moreover, even if directly fighting these insurgents was in the national interest, correctly deciphering whom the U.S. should target is complicated by Yemen’s internal politics. As originally reported by Al Jazeera America, the sensitive issue of southern secession and the rampant corruption throughout the country has led to “the personal agendas of Yemen’s elite encroaching on the United States’ counterterrorism strategy.”

This encroachment is most notable in the curious arrest of Omar Ahour, a Yemeni customs official, and twelve of his fellow tribesmen. In June, Yemeni forces, backed by the U.S., captured Ahour using faulty intelligence that suggested he was al-Qaeda’s local commander in Ghail Bawazir, a small town in Southern Yemen.  However, all thirteen of these men were eventually released with no charges pressed. Instead, it turned out that many of those arrested had in fact fought against Ansar-al-Sharia.

Ahour believes he was detained because he was too effective at his job. Recently, in his capacity as Wadeah Custom’s Director, Ahour oversaw the mass crackdown of illegal smuggling between the Yemeni and Saudi border, resulting in the doubling of government revenue from border acquisitions in the past year alone. He theorizes that this irritated several local sheiks and businessmen who utilized illegal smuggling to increase their wealth. In response, Ahour thinks that the local Yemeni elite, who feed the U.S. the majority of its intelligence, manipulated American forces to arrest him so that he could be replaced with someone less capable at doing his job. Though Ahour was released only twenty days after his capture, he couldn’t return to his position because he had been replaced almost immediately – a move that lends credence to his theory.[8]

A nonviolent alternative?

Hence, the U.S. military is playing a dangerous game in the region. Not only is it conducting a surprisingly ineffective counter-terrorism operation that appears to be increasing the ranks of AQAP, rather than debilitating the organization, but it may also be involving itself in a murky civil war that it has little to gain from, and a lot to lose. If the Yemeni conflict escalates, the U.S. could find itself forced to send thousands of troops into the country at a time when the American public is still fatigued by the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As such, the U.S. should rethink its current, overtly aggressive approach toward combating terrorism in Yemen, and attempt to implement a more diplomatic resolution to the current crisis. One potential solution may be reducing the extent of American drone strikes in Yemen, and supplementing U.S. Special Forces raids with increased USAID engagement with the local population. Currently, U.S. diplomats are confined to San’aa, the Yemeni capital, and are thus unable to assist the remote communities scattered throughout the country.[9] If U.S. Foreign Service Officers were able to work closer with local tribes, they could potentially address the underlying grievances that spur terrorist recruitment and insurgency in the first place.[10] Similarly, an increased diplomatic presence outside the capital would increase the quality of actionable U.S. intelligence about AQAP and its affiliates. This is critical to preventing unintentional drone strikes on the civilian population that increase terrorist recruitment, as well as avoiding further “accidental” arrests.[11] If this strategy were successful, it would ultimately eliminate the long-term need for America’s opaque targeted killings apparatus, which has a questionable moral and legal basis.

Note: The above is an alternate version of an article I wrote for the Online Edition of the Berkeley Political Review. You can access the original here.


[1]Barrage of drone strikes in Yemen show flaws of US counter-terrorism strategy,” Spencer Ackerman, August 12th 2013. Spencer Ackerman, National Security Editor for the Guardian US.

[2]Closing Embassies in the Middle East and the Threat from al Qaeda,” Thomas M. Sanderson, August 6th 2013. Thomas Sanderson, Co-director, Transnational Threats Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[3]Only Good Governance can Defeat Al Qaeda in Yemen,” Ibrahim Sharqieh, January 28th 2011. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director, Brookings Doha Center.

[4]How We Lost Yemen,” Gregory D. Johnsen, August 6th 2013. Gregory Johnsen, Former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen; PhD in Near East Studies from Princeton.

[5]No more foreign wars? Yet America is fighting in Yemen’s civil war,” Ryan Goodman, October 22nd 2013. Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law, New York University Law School; Co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, a U.S. National Security Law blog.

[7]U.S. escalates clandestine war in Yemen,” Los Angeles Times, May 16th 2012.

[8]Yemeni politics complicates US counterterrorism efforts,” Al Jazeera America, October 3rd 2013.

[9]A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen,” Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, September 2011. Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center; Instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

[10]Countering Extremism in Yemen: Beyond Interagency Cooperation,” Small Wars Journal, March 21st 2011. Colonel Kazimierz Kotlow, Visiting Senior Service College Fellow at The Washington Institute; Recently Served as the Defense & Army Attaché at the US Embassy in Yemen; Former Special Forces Detachment Commander.

[11]Recipe for Failure: American Strategy toward Yemen and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Katherine Zimmerman, February 17th 2012. Katherine Zimmerman, Gulf of Aden Team Lead, American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project; Specialist in Yemen and Somalia.

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