While the world’s eyes are on the crisis in Egypt, America’s current drone assault on Yemen is passing largely unnoticed.
President Barack Obama believes that drones will wipe out the resurgent Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with no loss of American life and at a manageable cost to the public purse. However, this ill-judged campaign may well backfire on the US.
Yemen has been an Al Qaida stronghold since a clampdown in Saudi Arabia forced militants over the border in 2009. By 2011, Osama Bin Laden had declared the country “the rear base for all jihadi work in the world”.
As in other Arab Spring countries, the security vacuum that appeared after the fall of president Ali Abdullah Saleh was swiftly filled by Al Qaida, enabling AQAP to root itself more firmly across the country, taking over several towns and cities and expanding its reach and numbers.
Yemen is among the world’s poorest nations — its gross domestic product just $2,700 (Dh9,909) per capita and has few resources to tempt American interest. Its importance to the US global project lies in its geographical location: Between them, Yemen and Somalia control traffic to and from the Bab Al Mandeb — a narrow strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden through which more than 3.3 million barrels of oil are shipped every day en route, via the Suez Canal, to Europe and the US.
In recent weeks, the threat posed by AQAP and other Al Qaida affiliates has become more urgent and attacks on security and industrial targets inside Yemen have escalated.
In the course of an intercepted online ‘conference call’ with leaders of Al Qaida affiliates from around the world, Al Qaida leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri announced that he had promoted AQAP leader Nasser Al Wuhayshi to a role within the central organisation. As general manager of Al Qaida’s operations, Al Wuhayshi would have contact with, and control over, the many branches of the organisation.
Al Wuhayshi has already proved that he can operate outside the confines of Yemen. Having released a video statement pledging to free all imprisoned Al Qaida members in a series of jail breaks, he seems to have masterminded a series of escapes from jails in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya in the past few weeks. Direct threats to western interests were expressed in the intercepted call, leading to the closure of 22 US embassies across the Muslim world at the end of Ramadan.
Obama’s personal war
Yemen’s President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was invited to the White House on August 1, an ‘honour’ that coincided with a surge in US drone strikes across his country, launched from a secret air strip in southern Saudi Arabia and the US base in Djibouti. Since then, 38 Yemenis have been killed — the majority, innocent civilians. I have seen infants being pulled out of the rubble of houses demolished by these drones.
The US drones policy is Obama’s personal war. It is his pragmatic alternative to invading countries in order to eliminate Al Qaida and is as illegitimate as it is cowardly.
US drones killed more than 4,000 civilians in Pakistan alongside the Al Qaida and Taliban militants they were meant to be targeting. Yet Al Qaida in Pakistan is clearly not ‘decimated’ as the administration claims. Hadi’s is one of the few governments to emerge from the rubble of the Arab Spring that America is pleased with. He was helped to power by the US and in his first utterances as president, Hadi made it clear that he wholeheartedly supports Obama’s war on terror.
I have met Hadi on several occasions both officially and socially. He is a pleasant, unassuming man, but was selected by Saleh to be his deputy because he did not pose any threat to the latter’s leadership. Hadi lacks Saleh’s political intelligence, charisma and influence. Most importantly in terms of Yemeni politics, Hadi does not have the tribal clout that kept Saleh in power for 33 years.
The US administration’s policy in Yemen is likely to have several unintended consequences.
Antipathy towards America is widespread in Yemen; that Hadi has sanctioned US drone strikes in violation of Yemeni sovereignty will make him unpopular with his own people, lessening his chances of re-election. It seems that the US is backing the wrong horse in Yemen. Hadi is not in a position to consolidate power across the country or to quash its two ongoing rebellions — by the Shiite Al Houthi tribes in the north and by a separatist movement in the south. All of this creates a security vacuum in which AQAP can thrive.
Hadi’s weakness and pliability contrasts unfavourably with the public image of his nemesis — Al Wuhayshi. Al Wuhayshi was the architect of the legendary jail break from Sana’a prison in 2006, which saw him and 21 fellow militants tunnel their way to freedom. Cunning and daring, Al Wuhayshi was Osama Bin Laden’s personal assistant until he was arrested in Iran in 2001. He was handpicked by the late Al Qaida leader to head AQAP. Like Bin Laden, he is from a wealthy Yemeni family and, if he survives, is seen by many as the future leader of Al Qaida ‘central’.
When I last visited Sana’a I was mobbed in the streets because I had met “the Sheikh”, Bin Laden. Al Qaida enjoys widespread popular support in Yemen and the current spate of drone strikes — which terrify and anger the populace in equal measure — will only increase its popularity as it stands immovably opposed to the US.
Drones are unlikely to win the ‘war on terror’ when they alienate hearts and minds.
The US will discover that, as Yemen’s well-loved poet Abdullah Al Bardoni put it, “it is easier to ride a lion than rule Yemen”.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.