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.
• Build up human intelligence. Drones are an impressive piece of technology, but they are also a dependent piece of technology. It doesn’t matter that a drone hovering far above the Yemeni desert can hit a car traveling down the road if it hits the wrong car. The lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence is the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen.
More than a decade after the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole, the U.S. in Yemen is still the proverbial blind man. It doesn’t have nearly enough Arabic speakers or assets of its own on the ground, which means that it often has to rely on local intelligence agencies for help. And this can lead to problems. In early 2010, the U.S. targeted what it thought was an al-Qaida meeting in the desert only to realize after the fact that it had killed a local politician, apparently on deliberately bad intelligence from the Yemeni government.
The U.S. has already lost more than a decade as the CIA transformed itself into a paramilitary organization that emphasized killing over the collecting and sifting of intelligence. John Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA and its new director, has said that he wants to return the agency to its more traditional role. The faster this happens, the more accurate U.S. drone strikes will become, which will in turn result in fewer strikes, fewer civilian casualties and fewer recruits for al-Qaida.
• Create space for tribes and clerics. The only people in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQAP are the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen. It is men like Salim al- Jabir, a local preacher, who have the standing and stature to take the fight to al-Qaida. Unfortunately, the more drone strikes there are, the more difficult this becomes. In al- Jabir’s case, it became impossible: In late 2012, a trio of al- Qaida operatives called a meeting with the young preacher in an attempt to get him to tone down his rhetoric. That meeting was struck by a drone; al-Jabir, a companion and the three al-Qaida members were killed.
By taking signature strikes off the table and limiting the number of high-value-target strikes, the U.S. will open up space for Yemen’s tribesmen and clerics to stand up to the terrorists. After all, AQAP has killed far more Yemenis than it has Americans.
The U.S. can’t win this war on its own. Right now, this is a fight between the U.S. and al-Qaida with Yemen as the battleground. It has to be Yemenis against al-Qaida, with the U.S. allying with its Yemeni partners.
More broadly, the U.S. needs to be honest about what it can do in Yemen as well as what it can’t. Doing nothing isn’t an option, but neither is trying to do everything on its own. It has more money, more men, better technology and better weapons than its enemy. In Yemen, it’s long past time to start putting those advantages to better use.
Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida, and America’s War in Arabia.”