SANA’A, Yemen — The preferred method of warfare of the United States military in recent years has been the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, most commonly known as a drone. The drone is piloted from a control station, or is “autonomously following a pre-programmed mission” for “reconnaissance and surveillance purposes” or for attack missions using its built-in missiles.
The drones have rapidly become a military mainstay and are seen as a way for the U.S. military to engage in hazardous missions while restricting ground combat and saving U.S. military personnel lives. Despite the documented benefits of expanding military efforts internationally and preventing U.S. military deaths, drones are progressively more vilified for the recognized cases of civilian deaths.
Rural regions in Yemen, a nation that lies on the Arab peninsula, have become increasingly intertwined with Al-Qaeda operatives. In 2009, AQAP, or Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, gained significant influence in the rural southern region. Ansar-al-Sharia, the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, slowly gained political clout.
By 2012, it had seized “control over five towns in the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa.”
Drone strikes have become quite common in the countryside, targeting suspected terrorists and attempting to quell their activities. Despite the best intentions, the U.S. military drone strikes have stoked controversy for the prevalence of “accidental” civilian deaths.
In December 2013, four drone missiles struck a wedding convoy in the village of Jishm, killing around 12 civilians.
The incident sparked national outrage. Local Yemeni’s were swiftly changing their viewpoints; the U.S. was not just combating terrorism, it was after anyone and everyone. Sheikh Ahmed al-Salmani, a local tribal leader who represents the victims of the drone attack, argued this was not a war against terrorism, but rather “a crusade” and “a war against Muslims.” He sternly asserted that the U.S. sees their lives as “no value to them.”
The value of life in Yemen can be counted, according to the Yemeni government. The government quickly came to offer compensation for the lives lost. The government offered $9,300 to the family of one of the deceased; it gave $4,650 for those injured. It also made promises of the end of drone strikes in the area, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled.
Can money truly make up for the incident?
The public has become infuriated at the frequent civilian deaths. Government officials in Yemen view the problem as far-reaching, arguing that “the attacks increase sympathy for al-Qaeda.” This may be true. AQAP was using the unpleasant incident to build “public relations” in its “ongoing attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Yemenis.” It is a cautionary tale of attempting to subdue terrorist activity, but in the end, emboldening their mission to facilitate more recruits.
The same situation is evident in regions such as Dagestan, where violent retribution by the Russian government has only led to a higher rate of terrorist activity and radicalism, particularly female suicide bombers, or “Black Widows,” avenging the deaths of their loved ones.
Drone attacks cannot be squarely put as the only factor in the rise of Al-Qaeda in the region. Al-Qaeda was gaining strong footing before U.S. intervention. Many point to the Yemeni government not developing strong “economic solution” for the impoverished residents.
Over 40.1 percent of rural residents live below the poverty line.
Disillusionment with the government gave way to protests that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, who ruled the nation since 1978. Ever growing economic troubles only made Al-Qaeda a more appealing choice. The drone attacks exacerbated these problems. Counter-terrorism policies wrongly attribute that AQAP is cooperating with local tribes, which in reality, is rarely the case.
The actual case on the ground is AQAP’s excellent ability at exploiting the gripes of local residents, and creating a story-line that expresses their viewpoint of a domineering U.S. military industrial complex that cares little of the injustice they face, and using this rationalize terrorist activities and to enlist local residents in their cause.
Understanding the nature of rural Yemeni politics is critical to addressing the situation. Yemeni rural populations live by tribal local custom, and experts argue the “most effective way to resolve the matter” is through meditation, to diminish carnage and social structural damage that leads to the growth of terrorism. This comes in contrast to U.S. method of military intervention and the “step up of drone strikes.” Hopefully, a new approach can be made to avoid emboldening Al-Qaeda in the region.
– Joseph Abay