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.
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 to contest it: the majority of Yemenis who believe that the group is an elite fabrication.
There are two errors in conventional Western thinking about AQAP. The first is the belief that the government in Sanaa is necessarily motivated to fight groups that violently challenge its rule—and is understood to do so by its population. The second is that AQAP authentically represents a segment of Yemeni society, which gives the group a firm foundation from which to expand its support base.
For Yemenis, though, the line between the state and AQAP is not always clear, and a loss for AQAP is not necessarily a win for the central government. Many believe that competing factions in Yemeni politics stoke the AQAP threat for political advantage. In turn, the fight against AQAP is just a stage on which other domestic power struggles play out. By viewing AQAP as merely a terrorist organization—and not also part of a plotline that has sustained a squabbling elite—the West has been left fumbling around in a domestic confrontation that it continues to misunderstand. The
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