By IBRAHIM MOTHANA
“DEAR OBAMA, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you…guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al-Qaeda,” warned a Yemeni lawyer on Twitter last month.
President Obama should keep this message in mind before ordering more drone strikes like Wednesday’s, which local officials say killed 27 people – or the May 15 strike that killed at least eight Yemeni civilians.
Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they aren’t driven by ideology, but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. Robert Grenier, former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — “the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.”
Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Taliban-ization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.
The first known drone strike in Yemen to be authorized by Mr. Obama, in late 2009, left 14 women and 21 children dead in the southern town of Al-Majala, according to a parliamentary report. Only one of the dozens killed was identified as having strong Al-Qaeda connections.
Misleading intelligence has also led to disastrous strikes with major political and economic consequences. An American drone strike in May 2010 killed Jabir Al-Shabwani, a prominent sheik and the deputy governor of Marib Province. The strike had dire repercussions for Yemen’s economy. The slain sheik’s tribe attacked the country’s main pipeline in revenge. With 70 percent of the country’s budget dependent on oil exports, Yemen lost over $1 billion. This strike also erased years of progress and trust-building with tribes who considered it a betrayal given their role in fighting Al Qaeda in their areas.
Yemeni tribes are generally quite pragmatic and are by no means a default option for radical religious groups seeking a safe haven. However, the increasing civilian toll of drone strikes is turning the apathy of tribal factions into anger.
The strikes have created an opportunity for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar Al-Sharia to recruit fighters from tribes who have suffered casualties, especially in Yemen’s south, where mounting grievances since the 1994 civil war have driven a strong secessionist movement.
Unlike Al-Qaeda in Iraq, A.Q.A.P. has worked on gaining the support of local communities by compromising on some of their strict religious laws and offering basic services, electricity and gas to villagers in the areas they control. Furthermore, Iran has seized this chance to gain more influence among the disgruntled population in Yemen’s south.
And the situation is quite likely to get worse now that Washington has broadened its rules of engagement to allow so-called signature strikes, when surveillance data suggest a terrorist leader may be nearby but the identities of all others targeted is not known. Such loose rules risk redefining “militants” as any military-age males seen in a strike zone.
Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes.
This is why A.Q.A.P. is much stronger in Yemen today than it was a few years ago. In 2009, A.Q.A.P. had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar Al-Sharia, at least 1,000 members and controls substantial amounts of territory.
Yemenis are the ones who suffer the most from the presence of Al-Qaeda, and getting rid of this plague is a priority for the majority of Yemen’s population. But there is no shortcut in dealing with it. Overlooking the real drivers of extremism and focusing solely on tackling their security symptoms with brutal force will make the situation worse.
Only a long-term approach based on building relations with local communities, dealing with the economic and social drivers of extremism, and cooperating with tribes and Yemen’s army will eradicate the threat of Islamic radicalism.
Unfortunately, liberal voices in the United States are largely ignoring, if not condoning, civilian deaths and extrajudicial killings in Yemen — including the assassination of three American citizens in September 2011, including a 16-year-old. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the rage would have been tremendous. But today there is little outcry, even though what is happening is in many ways an escalation of Mr. Bush’s policies.
Defenders of human rights must speak out. America’s counterterrorism policy here is not only making Yemen less safe by strengthening support for A.Q.A.P., but it could also ultimately endanger the United States and the entire world.
Ibrahim Mothana, a writer and activist, is a co-founder of the Watan Party.