Is the U.S. drone program in Yemen working?

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Lawfare.

The United States began to use drones in Yemen in 2002 to kill individuals affiliated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its predecessor organizations and disrupt its operations there and abroad. Since then, over 200 strikes have killed over a thousand Yemenis, tens of children, and at least a handful of U.S. citizens – one of whom was a deliberate target. The program has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organizations and some UN bodies, yet it remains in place because the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama view it as a success, as both have publicly stated.

Criticism of the program often takes the form of debates about which legal regime is relevant to judging a state’s use of targeted killings, which critics call “extra-judicial executions” or simply “assassinations.” While dissent has been strongest in academic and human rights communities, some scholars have echoed the arguments made by states that the imperatives of self-defense permit states to carry out such killings as legitimate acts of war. The Lawfare consensus seems in favor of these strikes.

I share the views of the moral and legal dissenters and hesitate to move beyond those debates because I don’t want to suggest that I accept the program’s legality. 

But I do want to engage those who do view the program as working — after all, if the U.S. administration did not believe it was working, it wouldn’t need to justify it legally. But by what metrics should we consider judging its success?

Perhaps the most obvious metric is whether AQAP leaders are actually being killed and, even more, whether their deaths substantially disrupted the group’s activities in Yemen or its ability to pursue objectives outside of Yemen. For advocates of this metric, the program has been successful in the short term — individuals killed – even if the longer-term impact is less clear because new leaders seem to step in with regularity.

Yet the success in taking out AQAP’s leadership is overstated. The numbers of AQAP members and supporters officially reported as killed are questionable, and probably grossly exaggerated. This is because the U.S. administration considers all adult males in the vicinity of the strikes to be combatants, not civilians, unless their civilian status can be established subsequently. Full investigations are neither desirable nor pragmatic for the U.S. government – particularly now that Yemen is the site of a civil and regional war. Even more troubling is that at times the U.S. may not even be certain of its primary targets. It frequently uses language that is so conditional that there seems to be more than a bit of guessing about the identities of those being targeted.

But I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.

The narrative that the West, and especially the United States, fears the Muslim world is powerful and pervasive in the region. The U.S. intervenes regularly in regional politics and is a steadfast ally of Israel. It supports Saudi Arabia and numerous other authoritarian regimes that allow it to establish permanent U.S. military bases on Arab land. It cares more about oil and Israel than it does about the hundreds of millions in the region suffering under repressive regimes and lacking the most basic human securities. These ideas about the American role in Middle East affairs – many of them true – are among those in wide circulation in the region.

Al-Qaida has since 1998 advanced the argument that Muslims need to take up arms against the United States and its allied regimes in the region. Yet al-Qaida’s message largely fell on deaf ears in Yemen for many years. Yes, it did attract some followers, mostly those disappointed to have missed the chance to fight as mujahidin in Afghanistan. But al-Qaida’s narrative of attacking the foreign enemy at home did not resonate widely. The movement remained isolated for many years, garnering only limited sympathy from the local communities in which they sought refuge. 

 The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets.

The United States cut aid to Yemen in 1990 when the newly united Yemeni state, which had just rotated into the Arab seat on the UN Security Council, voted against authorization for a U.S.-led coalition to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Yemen suffered a tremendous economic blow, as the United States joined Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in unilaterally severing aid to what was then and still is the poorest Arab nation. But with the rise of jihadi activism on the Arabian Peninsula over the next decade, and particularly after the bombing of USS Cole in 2000, Salih welcomed the return of U.S. aid to Yemen. This included a strong security dimension as the United States began tracking those suspected of involvement in the Cole attacks and other al-Qaida activities. Conspicuous caravans of FBI agents became a topic of local conversations, so the return of a U.S. presence in Yemen was also more visible than it had been previously. Salih claimed to have had advance knowledge of every drone strike.

Saudi Arabia has meddled in Yemen at least since the fall of the northern Mutawakkilite monarchy in the late 1960s. The Saudi intervention that began with air strikes in March of this year and escalated to ground troops is thus only the latest — and most egregious — of the kingdom’s efforts to affect Yemen politics. This background is necessary to understand that if Yemen is a “failed state,” despite scholarly protestations otherwise, it is at least in part due to decades of external actors violating Yemeni sovereignty with near impunity. The drone program, like the Saudi-led war, is merely a recent and overt example.

I lived in Yemen for several years spread over the period from 1994-1999. During that time, the optimism about the democratic opening of 1990 gave way to increasing frustrations as Salih solidified his control over united Yemen. He defeated the southern leadership in the 1994 war and curtailed the freedoms and pluralism that marked the early unification period, but open public debate has always been vibrant. Travel throughout Yemen was easy at that time, the only obstacle being the need to hire an all-terrain vehicle and driver who knew the many poorly marked roads.

The Yemenis I met cut across social classes and regions, but were overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly toward Americans. In my research on Islamist political parties in Yemen and Jordan, I talked to hundreds of self-described Islamists. I spoke to people in the larger cities, the smaller towns, and in rural areas. We spent long hours talking about Islam and debating the contemporary political problems facing Yemen, the United States, and the world. In 1995 we spoke extensively about race and class in America as Yemenis watched the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN International. I often marveled at the knowledge Yemenis had of the U.S. political system; I wondered if most Americans had comparable knowledge of any other country at all. I was welcomed into homes and shared holidays with families.

What strikes me now is how most Islamists saw jihadi groups as having no place in Yemeni politics. There were jihadis in Yemen, of course, primarily the “Afghan Arabs” who had returned from fighting abroad in Afghanistan and other theaters of jihad and faced difficulties reassimilating. Islamists donning mustaches complained about Taliban proclamations that adult male Muslims must sport a beard at least a fist long. They also complained of the Saudi-sponsored “scientific institutes” that taught the super-conservative Wahhabi take on Islam. Salih had even enjoined these extremists to launch deadly attacks against Southern socialists in the first years after unification. Most of the individuals influenced by these trends eventually found their way into al-Qaida circles.

But they were relatively few. Al-Qaida found little success in attracting Yemenis who were not already drawn to jihadi ideas. The al-Qaida recruiting pitch of attacking foreign powers inside of Yemen simply rang hollow. Even the 2000 attack upon USS Cole — a warship docked in Aden — was not widely viewed as the legitimate targeting of a foreign military power intervening in Yemeni politics. Al-Qaida had to resort to extremist tactics precisely because its ideas did not attract a following significant enough to spark a popular mobilization.

For al-Qaida, the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment. Regardless of American perceptions about the legitimacy or efficacy of the attacks, what Yemeni could now deny that the United States is waging an undeclared war on Yemen?

Most recently, this narrative of direct U.S. intervention has been further substantiated by U.S. material and intelligence support for the Saudi-led military campaign aimed at the return to power of the unpopular and exiled-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Photographs of spent U.S.-made cluster bombs are widely circulated. Nor have drone attacks ceased; alongside the often indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing, American drones continue their campaign of targeted assassination. 

One might think that the Saudi attacks would not help al-Qaida, but it is contributing to al-Qaida’s growth in Yemen. The indiscriminate targeting of the Saudi-led campaign undermines any sense of security, let alone Yemeni sovereignty. And AQAP-controlled areas like the port of Mukalla are not being targeted by Saudi or Gulf troops at all. The United States aims to take up the job of targeting AQAP while the Saudi-led (and U.S.-backed) forces focus on defeating the Houthis and restoring Hadi to power. But the overall situation is one in which those multiple interventions in Yemen are creating an environment in which al-Qaida is beginning to appeal in ways it never had before.

For al-Qaida, the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment.

For these reasons, the U.S. use of drones to kill even carefully identified AQAP leaders in Yemen is counterproductive: it gives resonance to the claims of the very group it seeks to destroy. It provides evidence that al-Qaida’s claims and strategies are justified and that Yemenis cannot count on the state to protect them from threats foreign and domestic.

U.S. officials have argued that the drone program has not been used as a recruiting device for al-Qaida. But it is hard to ignore the evidence to the contrary, from counterinsurgency experts who have worked for the U.S. government to Yemeni voices like Farea Muslimi.

It’s not just that drone strikes make al-Qaida recruiting easier, true as that probably is, but that they broaden the social space in which al-Qaida can function. America does not need to win the “hearts and minds” of Yemenis in the service of some grand U.S. project in the region. But if America wants to weaken al-Qaida in Yemen, it needs at a minimum to stop pursuing policies that are bound to enrage and embitter Yemenis who might otherwise be neutral. 

There is an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. The U.S. military — let alone its drones — is not the only tool on which the United States can rely. But when the measure of success is as narrow as the killing of a specific person, the tool gets used with increasing frequency. Indeed, drone strikes have significantly expanded under the Obama administration.

It is crucial to see the bigger picture, the one in which long-time Yemeni friends tell me of growing anti-U.S. sentiment where there was previously very little. Public opinion toward America has clearly deteriorated over the past decade, and to reverse it may take much longer. But the use of drones to kill people deemed enemies of the United States, along with the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, is expanding the spaces in which al-Qaida is able to function.