Drone Wars

05.15.14

Hunting Al Qaeda: America’s Epic Yemen Fail

From Pakistan to Nigeria, terrorists are taunting the governments that are trying to hunt them down. The record in Yemen, scene of a weeks-long offensive, helps explain why.

When two Americans shot their way out of a barbershop in Yemen recently, killing two men who may have been out to kidnap them, anyone who heard about it in the CIA thought immediately of Raymond Davis. He was the CIA contractor who blew away two Pakistanis in the street in Lahore in 2011, got arrested, thrown in jail, and nearly put on trial for his life before the United States coughed up blood money for the families of the dead and spirited him out of the country. 

In Yemen, the U.S. Special Operations commando and CIA officer at the barbershop were extracted much more quickly and quietly after the April 24 shooting, reportedly with the blessing of Yemen’s government.

“This was handled right,” says a former senior official in the terror wars. But that may be more than can be said for the semi-clandestine battle against Al Qaeda that is now at its height in Yemen, making every American a potential target (and making the two operatives at the barbershop look very foolish if they went for a haircut without extra security). The U.S. embassy in Sana’a has been closed to the public because of the growing threat.

While U.S. drones and Yemeni special forces working closely with the Americans have been mounting repeated attacks against al Qaeda’s operatives and their tribal supporters in some remote corners of the country, claiming victory after victory, the terrorists have been coming right back at them. Last Friday, militants hit a checkpoint outside the palace of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the capital.

Meanwhile, reporting on the ground suggests some of the government victories aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and some veteran analysts in Washington question where there is any long-term strategy for bringing the fighting to an end.

At times, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as it’s called, openly taunts the Hadi government and its American backers. On March 29, it released a video of hundreds of militants celebrating the homecoming of 29 AQAP members who’d been freed in a spectacular jailbreak. Among the celebrants, making no effort to disguise himself, was Naser al-Wuhaishi, the leader of AQAP, who vowed to free Yemen of “the cross and its holder, America.”

At times, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as it’s called, openly taunts the Hadi government and its American backers.

Less than a month later, possibly using intelligence gleaned from the video, Yemeni special forces—flown in helicopters reportedly piloted by Americans—started a series of concerted attacks on militant strongholds in Shabwa and Abyan provinces.

On April 21, government operatives on the ground ambushed a car supposed to be carrying Wuhaishi and AQAP’s legendary bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. One witness interviewed by The Daily Beast said that he and other residents of the village of Tholaimeen first heard the rotors of the approaching helicopters, then heavy gunfire, before the militant car was hit by a missile launched, they believed, from an American drone. “We arrived while the flames were still burning,” said accountant Salim al-Mansoori. Others saw “traces of blood and corpses being dragged along by the forces,” he said.

The next day, President Hadi’s office attributed the operation to Yemen’s elite special forces and said the unit would be awarded the “Medal of Bravery” for “executing a successful raid last night that targeted AQAP operatives in Shabwa.” The statement said that “authorities are working on confirming the identities of the operatives.” But Al Qaeda said no leader had been lost, and the three men in the car turned out to be much less important recruits to the militant ranks, according to locals interviewed by The Daily Beast. One of the dead, Ahmed Saleh al-Aqili, was only 14 years old.

“Wuhaishi’s death and Al-Asiri’s? Those are going to be reported over and over again and maybe someday it will be true,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, now a lecturer at Princeton. She notes that there is a concerted Yemeni government effort to dislodge Al Qaeda from its strongholds, with support not only from the Americans but from the Saudis, who have extensive intelligence operations focused on their Yemeni neighbors. President Hadi, who succeeded dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, “has consistently gone out in front going after Al Qaeda,” says Bodine.

But the former ambassador is skeptical about the operations’ overall effectiveness, when it is hard to know how many people are being killed and who they are, especially when they are blasted from above. “The drones are far more costly than the [U.S.] government will admit,” says Bodine. What are needed are programs that will recruit people to the government cause, but when you are blowing away suspects all over the map—and too often the wrong suspects— “you move people onto the ‘active inactive’ list,” meaning they give at least passive support to Al Qaeda. “When we hit the wrong target, we also look incompetent,” says Bodine, 

“It’s all well and good to push back Al Qaeda, but if we destroy a little village and the villagers get no assistance, we just lost them twice,” says Bodine. “We need to rebuild what we take back from Al Qaeda.” And that’s not being done. 

Last August, when there was a similar uptick in the fight against Al Qaeda in Yemen (and an alert that shut down not only the U.S. embassy in Sana’a but American diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East), senior American intelligence officials told The New York Times that none of the three dozen or so militants killed in drone strikes at the time were “household names,” but they were “rising stars” in the Yemen network. “That’s the best possible spin on ‘We didn't take out anybody important,’” says Bodine.

One wonders how many of those rising stars were 14 years old.