Yemenis look for a drone aircraft in the town of Wadi Abida. (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Courtesy Reuters)
Recent revelations that the White House keeps a secret terrorist kill list, which it uses to target al Qaeda leaders, have spurred a debate over drone warfare. Progressive pundits excoriate the Obama administration for expanding the power of the executive branch. Senate Republicans, in turn, have demanded the appointment of a special counsel to probe the alleged leaks of classified information that brought the kill list to light. As the political drama unfolds in Washington, however, the United States is intensifying its drone campaign in the arid mountains and remote plateaus of Yemen.
With al Qaeda's center of gravity shifting from Pakistan to Yemen, the Central Intelligence Agency recently sought authority to conduct "signature strikes," in which drone pilots engage targets based on behavioral profiles rather than on positive identifications. The move marks a significant increase in the intensity and extensity of the drone campaign -- in the first six months of 2012, the Obama administration conducted approximately 43 drone strikes in Yemen, nearly twice the total from the three preceding years.
Critics argue that drone strikes create new adversaries and drive al Qaeda's recruiting. As the Yemeni youth activist Ibrahim Mothana recently wrote in The New York Times, "Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair." The Washington Post concurs. In May, it reported that the "escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes [in Yemen] is stirring increasing sympathy for al Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States." The ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have tripled to 1,000 in the last three years, and the link between its burgeoning membership, U.S. drone strikes, and local resentment seems obvious.
Last month, I traveled to Yemen to study how AQAP operates and whether the conventional understanding of the relationship between drones and recruitment is correct. While there, I conducted 40 interviews with tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources. These subjects came from 14 of Yemen's 21 provinces, most from rural regions. Many faced insurgent infiltration in their own districts. Some of them were actively fighting AQAP. Two had recently visited terrorist strongholds in Jaar and Zinjibar as guests. I conducted each of these in-depth interviews using structured questions and a skilled interpreter. I have withheld my subjects' names to protect their safety -- a necessity occasioned by the fact that some of them had survived assassination attempts and that others had recently received death threats.
These men had little in common with the Yemeni youth activists who capture headlines and inspire international acclaim. As a group, they were older, more conservative, and more skeptical of U.S. motives. They were less urban, less wealthy, and substantially less secular. But to 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.
Al Qaeda exploits U.S. errors, to be sure. As the Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen correctly observes, the death of some 40 civilians in the December 2009 cruise missile strike on Majala infuriated ordinary Yemenis and gave AQAP an unexpected propaganda coup. But the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient. As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.
From al Hudaydah in the west to Hadhramaut in the east, AQAP is building complex webs of dependency within Yemen's rural population. It gives idle teenagers cars, khat, and rifles -- the symbols of Yemeni manhood. It pays salaries (up to $400 per month) that lift families out of poverty. It supports weak and marginalized sheikhs by digging wells, distributing patronage to tribesmen, and punishing local criminals. As the leader of one Yemeni tribal confederation told me, "Al Qaeda attracts those who can't afford to turn away."
Religious figures echoed these words. Though critical of the U.S. drone campaign, none of the Islamists and Salafists I interviewed believed that drone strikes explain al Qaeda's burgeoning numbers. "The driving issue is development," an Islamist parliamentarian from Hadramout province said. "Some districts are so poor that joining al Qaeda represents the best of several bad options." (Other options include criminality, migration, and even starvation.) A Salafi scholar engaged in hostage negotiations with AQAP agreed. "Those who fight do so because of the injustice in this country," he explained. "A few in the north are driven by ideology, but in the south it is mostly about poverty and corruption."
Despite Yemenis' antipathy toward drones, my conversations also revealed a surprising degree of pragmatism. 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." An Islamist member of the separatist al-Harak movement offered a similar assessment. "Ordinary people have become very practical about drones," he said. "If the United States focuses on the leaders and civilians aren't killed, then drone strikes will hurt al Qaeda more than they help them."
Some of the men I interviewed admitted that they had changed their minds about drone strikes. Separatists in Aden who openly derided AQAP as a proxy of Yemen's recently deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, privately acknowledged the utility of the U.S. drone campaign. "Saleh created this crisis in order to steal from America and stay in power," a former official from the now-defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen told me. "Now it is our crisis, and we need every tool to solve it."
Yemeni journalists, particularly those with firsthand exposure to AQAP, shared this view: "I opposed the drone campaign until I saw what al Qaeda was doing in Jaar and Zinjibar," an independent reporter in Aden said. "Al Qaeda hates the drones, they're absolutely terrified of the drones ... and that is why we need them."
My interviewees also offered deeper insight into the sentiments described by Western journalists and Yemeni activists. In their view, public opposition to drones had little to do with a desire for revenge or increasing sympathy for al Qaeda. Instead, they argued, ordinary Yemenis see the drones as an affront to their national pride. "Drones remind us that we don't have the ability to solve our problems by ourselves," one member of the Yemeni Socialist Party said. "If these were Yemeni drones, rather than American drones, there would be no issue at all."
Surprisingly, Islamist politicians said much the same. "No one resents a drone strike if the target was a terrorist," a member of the Muslim Brotherhood told me. "What we resent is the fact that outsiders are involved." A leader from the Zaydi Shia community framed the sovereignty issue in even starker terms. "The problem is not killing people like [Anwar] al-Awlaki," he said, referring to the Yemeni-American al Qaeda propagandist killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. "The problem is when the U.S. ambassador goes on television and takes credit for it."
None of these reactions address the legal dimensions of drone warfare. Although drones don't drive al Qaeda recruiting, policymakers must still balance the tactical benefits of targeted, proportional force with the risks of rapid military escalation and broadening executive powers. As they weigh their options, they should consider two lessons. First, as long as drones target legitimate terrorists, Yemenis grudgingly acknowledge their utility. And second, the more Yemenis perceive the United States as a serious partner, the less drones will pique their national pride.
This research also offers another lesson. Despite deeper engagement and closer coordination, Americans and Yemenis are fighting the same war from different premises. The United States emphasizes radical ideology. Yemen emphasizes endemic poverty. Washington wants immediate results. Sana'a needs long-term development. Americans fear foreign attacks on their national security. Yemenis resent foreign affronts to their national pride. Washington's drone dramas are just one example of this self-defeating disconnect. The more policymakers read their domestic debates into Yemeni politics, the less they will appreciate vital voices from the field.