Expert: Drone Campaign In Yemen Hurting Al-Qaeda

MQ-9 Reaper Drone (Photo: Senior Airman Larry E. Reid Jr./USAF)

A Washington Post report recently suggested that the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was backfiring, purportedly “increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.” A new report in Foreign Affairs, by contrast, comes to the opposite conclusion.

Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law, traveled to Yemen and found that “the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic” and are not a result of blowback from drone strikes. Indeed, according the Yemenis Swift interviewed, the drone strikes were hurting AQAP:

[T]o my astonishment, none of the individuals I interviewed drew a causal relationship between U.S. drone strikes and al Qaeda recruiting. Indeed, of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al Qaeda more than they were hurting it. …

Those living in active conflict zones drew clear distinctions between earlier U.S. operations, such as the Majala bombing, and more recent strikes on senior al Qaeda figures. “Things were very bad in 2009,” a tribal militia commander from Abyan province told me, “but now the drones are seen as helping us.” He explained that Yemenis could “accept [drones] as long as there are no more civilian casualties.”

The striking difference between the Washington Post and Foreign Affairs accounts of the drone campaign may be a consequence of the two stories’ sourcing. While the Post interviewed “tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen,” Swift met with Yemeni journalists and “tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources” that were “older, more conservative, and more skeptical of U.S. motives.”

But it’s clear that the aftereffects of drone strikes are far from well understood. Drones look to be playing a significant role in bringing al-Qaeda’s defeat “within reach,” but the conflicting reports on the campaign’s consequences serve as reminders of the negative aspects of this nascent counter-terrorism tool. As Swift notes, the strikes in Yemen and Pakistan can kill a number of innocent civilians. The drone program is also unpopular internationally and shrouded in secrecy domestically.