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Assisting Al Qaeda

How U.S. Strategy Could Empower AQAP in Yemen

Boys gather near the wreckage of car destroyed last year by a U.S. drone air strike targeting suspected al Qaeda militants in Azan of the southeastern Yemeni province of Shabwa, February 3, 2013. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

For years, drone strikes have been a regular feature of U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen. They have taken out many of al Qaeda’s most important leaders, yet the organization’s reach has increased dramatically.

One explanation for this apparent contradiction is that, since the drone strikes started, the Yemeni government has happened to become weaker, giving al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the advantage of relatively ungoverned spaces from which to operate. Another is that the drone strikes have killed civilians, giving weight to AQAP’s claim that Yemen is under attack by a foreign power and bolstering the group’s appeal.

A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, November 13, 2014.
A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, November 13, 2014. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
There is probably an element of truth to both. But to a significant degree, the problem is also a product of the West’s failure to grasp how Yemenis view AQAP—a failure that both facilitated the group’s expansion and undermined those best placed

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