The Drone Blowback Fallacy

Strikes in Yemen Aren't Pushing People to Al Qaeda

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

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