Somewhere in Yemen are about two dozen individuals whom the United States is looking to capture or kill. These are al-Qaida’s senior operational leaders, the men administration officials think are plotting to attack the U.S. and its interests abroad.
To kill them, the U.S. has carried out dozens of air and drone strikes – the most conservative estimate puts the number at 91 – over the past 3 1 / 2years. Few strikes have been successes. They have killed a lot of people but very few of the top commanders.
Since December 2009, the U.S. has killed somewhere between 632 and 1,231 people in Yemen. Only the tiniest fraction – about four, according to both the best open-source reporting and al-Qaida’s own eulogies – are individuals who could be considered top figures within al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the al-Qaida branch based in Yemen. The rest have been low- and mid-level al-Qaida fighters and civilians: women, children and tribesmen. That’s what happens when you use a scalpel as a hammer. This approach is not only not producing the results that the Obama administration wants – AQAP appears to be growing instead of getting smaller – but also isn’t sustainable or cost-effective, let alone prudent.
Yet faced with a real security threat and seemingly few options, President Barack Obama seems set on this response. Essentially, the administration’s hope is that by bombing suspected al-Qaida targets in Yemen, the U.S. will keep AQAP back on its heels to the point that the group can’t plot, plan and launch attacks against the U.S.
Drone strikes can be an effective weapon. And the administration’s reluctance to put boots on the ground is understandable. But while the Obama administration is unlikely to rethink its entire strategy, it can do a lot to reduce the collateral damage in Yemen and increase the good, both in terms of lives and broader goals:
• Use drones more judiciously. The U.S. carries out two types of drone strikes in Yemen. The first are “high-value target” strikes, which take place when the U.S. knows the identity of a target in a car or a house, although not necessarily the identities of everyone present.
The second type is called a signature strike. Some in the Central Intelligence Agency refer to these as “crowd killing.” This is when the U.S. doesn’t know the identities of the individuals it is killing. These strikes target “patterns of life” – things such as visiting a house the U.S. has linked to al-Qaida, or when a group of men get in a car together and their phones indicate they have all been in contact with known al- Qaida figures.
Signature strikes are particularly problematic in Yemen, where most members of AQAP are Yemenis who are linked to local society through their tribes and clans. In such an environment, determining if the bearded man with a gun is a member of al- Qaida or merely a tribesman is incredibly difficult. Many of the civilian casualties in Yemen, which are helping to spark more recruits for al-Qaida, are a result of signature strikes. And they need to be stopped.
Yemenis don’t take to the streets when legitimate high- value targets are killed; rather, it is the civilian casualties that provoke so much anger. The assassination of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone in September 2011 caused barely a ripple in Sanaa. It was the death of his 16-year-old son in a drone strike two weeks later that enraged so many. The problem is not that the U.S. is using drones in Yemen, but that it is using them too often and making too many mistakes.