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Death in Yemen: Disillusion and drones in the desert

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MQ-1 Predator Drone launching a Hellfire missile.

Yemen. Located on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula. It has as convoluted, rich and tortured a history as … well … most of its neighbours in the Middle East.

Yemen is a desperately poor country where two-thirds of the populace is unemployed, 42 per cent live in poverty and 20 per cent are malnourished. Rural poverty is endemic, water is in critical short supply (per capita water consumption is 125 cubic meters per year, 1/50th of the world average), and land and water are largely controlled by the wealthy. Only 0.7 per cent of the rural population has access to basic sanitation, and polluted water contributes to a high rate of infant mortality. Only 15 per cent have access to electricity.

Yemen ranks 140th out of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Despite this, the youthful population (46 per cent are under 15) is growing rapidly (the fertility rate is 4.5 children per couple and the population grows at 3 per cent per annum).

Yemen's small oil reserves are expected to be depleted by 2017 and corruption is rampant. Moreover, in the past several decades the country has been rocked by an almost unending series of civil wars, revolts, insurrections, protests and military campaigns. A rosy picture, indeed.

USS ColeYemen: A hotbed of terrorism?

In recent years Yemen has been variously implicated in a serious of terrorist actions targeting the United States. For instance:

 • On October 12, 2000 the United States destroyer USS Cole was attacked while in Yemeni port of Aden (17 American servicemen were killed and 39 injured) by purported al-Qaeda operatives an attack carried out by Yemeni citizens (Note: the United States has ruled that the Sudanese government is responsible for the attack.)

• On September 17, 2008 Al-Qaeda operatives attacked the United States Embassy in the capital, Sana'a killing 19 people (only one of whom was American).

• On October 29, 2010 two packages of plastic explosives were found and defused on cargo planes originating in Yemen and bound for the United States.

• Al-Qaeda operatives such as Anwar al-Awlaki (killed by an American drone strike in 2011), an American citizen based in later years in Yemen who played a role in several terrorist operations and called for jihad against the United States, and Umar Farouk Abdulmetallab (the so-called "underwear bomber," now in prison in the United States) have been based in Yemen.

Yemen: The revenge of the drones

The United States government is of the opinion that Yemen is a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. The fractured Yemeni state with its repeated upheavals has meant that a patchwork of control and anarchy governs the country. And it is undoubtedly the case that various militants, displaced from other centers of Islamic radicalism, have gravitated to Yemen.

United States Drone Strikes in YemenThe response of the United States has been to launch armed attacks on people and groups it holds responsible for anti-American activities. In November 2002, shortly after the USS Cole attack, a CIA Predator drone launched a Hellfire missile at Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a Yemeni suspected of masterminding the USS Cole bombing. Al-Harethi and five of his associates were killed. Further drone and cruise missile attacks followed in 2009 and 2010, and by 2011 this undeclared war was in full swing with regular drone and cruise missile strikes and other covert operations.

The New America Foundation has carefully monitored this military campaign in Yemen and reports that there have been a total of 94 strikes (85 per cent by drones) resulting in approximately 893 casualties (87 per cent of whom were militants). With the exception of the one strike in 2002 (under George W. Bush), all the remainder have been conducted under the presidency of Barack Obama.

United States Drone Strikes in YemenThese are all de facto extra-judicial killings. Individuals conducting such activities could be charged with murder. There have been no judicial processes to determine the guilt or innocence of the militants targeted in these attacks, or if their culpability in presumed operations would warrant measures such as the death penalty. No state of war exists between Yemen and the United States. No apology or compensation has been extended to the approximately 116 innocent civilians who have fallen victim to these strikes.

From a strictly operational perspective, it's frequently unclear how many of the militants who have been killed are high-ranking operatives or are simply foot soldiers, drivers, or bodyguards. It is also unclear whether -- even if there is evidence that suggests their culpability in criminal actions -- they could not have been otherwise apprehended by Yemeni authorities (who have variously cooperated with the United States government in at least some of these actions). How is it then that people continue to be assassinated?

The Obama Doctrine of extra-judicial killing

John O. Brennan, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, articulated the Obama Doctrine on extra-judicial killing. In an April 30, 2012 address at the Wilson Center, Brennan made the case that:

"As a matter of domestic law, the Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after the September 11, 2001 attacks, authorizes the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" against those nations, organizations and individuals responsible for 9/11. There is nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qa’ida to Afghanistan."

Brennan further argued that:

"As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense. There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat."

 Barack ObamaIn my view, these arguments are on thin legal ice. Although the United States government can pass what laws it likes, it is a legal stretch to extend the 2001 AUMF to Yemeni radicals, thousands of kilometers from Afghanistan a dozen years after the events of 9/11. This appears suspiciously like an all-purpose pretext to allow the U.S. government to target anyone, anywhere, and not the basis of sound jurisprudence.

As for international law, it is again a significant stretch to construe (on the basis of little or no publicly-available evidence) that the activities of small groups of militants in the Yemeni desert qualify as a threat to the national security of the United States. It's also unclear exactly what the legal basis of being "at war" with a non-state actor like Al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Shariya is. Again, this sounds suspiciously like a catchall excuse justifying military escapades hither and yon.

If the United States wishes to retain its moral authority in the world it needs to avoid acting like a death squad. Some of the militants targeted in these drone strikes may indeed be very bad people with blood on their hands and responsible for, conducting, and planning nefarious things. If one believes in the death penalty (a separate issue) then justice might well have been effected by the U.S. drone strikes. However, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done, and extra-judicial killing on the basis of flimsy excuses does not provide such optics.

The Boomerang comes back

Legality aside, a further question is what do these actions achieve? Israeli journalist Amir Oren has identified what he calls the "boomerang effect" namely that, "an aggressive move does not necessarily result in surrender, but rather counter-aggression, which causes the original aggressor to suffer at least as much as the intended victim," a military expression of the principle of unintended consequences as articulated by sociologist Robert Merton.

Halifax International Security Forum

At the Halifax International Security Forum I discussed this issue with Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. Harman sanguinely opined that:

"Unless our [i.e., American] policies for using [drones] are clearly understood, and we can make the case effectively that there is minimal collateral damage -- which, by the way, there is -- I see what [Amir Oren] called the "boomerang effect." The idea that what you send out comes back with greater force and takes you out. If America's foreign policy is perceived as a drone policy, we lose. If America's foreign policy is perceived as consistent with our values, and we use force only when we must, then we win."

So, are American policies for the use of drones being clearly understood? Is there minimal collateral damage? Is America's foreign policy consistent with its values?

At the at the Halifax International Security Forum I also had an opportunity to interview Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni journalist with Al-Monitor and country coordinator for Yemen with the Beirut based Beyond Reform and Development group. Earlier this year Al-Muslimi testified in Washington before a Senate subcommittee hearing about the impact of drones and targeted killing in Yemen.

Christopher Majka: What are the effects of the continuing U.S. military campaign on the people of Yemen?

Farea Al-MuslimiFarea Al-Muslimi: One of the main weapons that have been used in Yemen is drones. The use of these drones has killed civilians [which has] led to many tensions in the country. One problem is the secrecy of the list [of those who are targeted]. We don't know who is on the "kill-list" of the drones in Yemen. So you might be hanging out with someone in Yemen, he is a social friend, no one knows that he is connected to Al-Qaeda, and suddenly that person is "droned." This happened in my village, and no one knew that he [Hamdi al Radami, the presumed target of the strike] was connected to Al-Qaeda.

This then creates another fear: you don't know who's next. Maybe you are on the list because one day you shook hands with someone who was wanted. You just don't know. It has also created a huge domestic fear to the point that people are no longer afraid of Al-Qaeda, but rather of the drones. It has changed the whole domestic culture of Yemeni society. I met a man from the middle of Yemen who told me that previously women would tell their children, "Go to bed or I will call father." Now they say, "Go to bed or I will call the drones."

I was recently outside of Sana'a meeting with someone whose brother was killed in a drone strike. His brother was a teacher in a school and was accidentally in a car; he didn't know that the people [he was with] had been targeted. When this man arrived [at the site of the drone strike] he found the least-harmed body, the one that he could still carry, and took that body home to bury. He's not sure if that was actually the body of his brother, but it was the only one [that was intact enough that] he could carry it; the others had been completely destroyed. Now, if in the morning a teacher is late in arriving at school, the students become terrified. They are afraid that there may have been another drone strike.

In another area there was a local religious leader who had been preaching against Al-Qaeda. He was one of the people who attacked Al-Qaeda the most. Then one day on his way back home he was "droned." This, a man who was fighting Al-Qaeda.

CM: What political impacts are these drone strikes having?

Farea Al-MuslimiFAM: The [drone strikes] are changing the perception of Al-Qaeda. Drones are Al-Qaeda's number one [recruiting] tool. I am aware of many cases where Al-Qaeda has recruited new members simply because of the drone [strikes]. In the center of Yemen where there have been many drone strikes, a local leader of Al-Qaeda complained because his soldiers do not pray, they are very non-religious. They are a kind of "secular" Al-Qaeda. That's because they didn't join Al-Qaeda for any religious purposes, but simply to fight against those who had killed their relatives.

People say that Yemen is a lawless country; I don't think so. I think the lawless country is the United States that is killing people outside of the law. Yemeni history is deeply rooted in law, the tribal law that says, "If you kill, then you get killed. If you attack my relative then I attack you back." That's very clear; everyone understands it.

What's worse than that is that there is no compensation, no apology. There is not even an admission of [mistakes]. Yet there are some situations where Al-Qaeda has paid compensation to villagers for causing harm to them. So we should be very alarmed that Al-Qaeda is doing the right thing by apologizing and paying compensation, whereas the United States government is not admitting its mistakes.

MQ-9 Reaper DroneThey [the U.S.] usually say that they are killing people who cannot be captured and who are a critical threat to the United States. Out of hundreds of strikes in Yemen only four fit this criteria. The rest are of people who could easily have been captured or who are not figures from Al-Qaeda, or pose no threat to the U.S. The drone campaign has underestimated the ability of the Yemeni government, making its security look weak, which is dangerous.

In 2009 before the drone campaign there were a few hundred Al-Qaeda members in Yemen; there are now a few thousand. I wouldn't suggest that this is only due to the drone strikes, but I am confident, having seen the situation on the ground, that this increase is mainly because of drone strikes. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that this [drone strategy] is not working.

CM: Militant groups in Yemen like Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Shariya: what are their objectives? Are they interested in a Salafist vision of exporting radical Islam?

AGM-129 Cruise missleFAM: The "traditional" Al-Qaeda, the one that follows Bin Laden, that follows Wahabism, it's still there. But it's not the main force. Because the government has not [assumed] its responsibilities in many parts of Yemen, different groups, whether they call themselves Al-Qaeda or not, have taken the place of the government, such as Ansar al-Shariya. While Ansar al-Shariya can be connected to the main Al-Qaeda, it's [fundamentally] not an organization that is calling for jihad against America. What it wants is better government, better services for the community. They are not an organization that is interested in exporting anything to the west, or attacking the west. In the absence of government in parts of Yemen, Ansar al-Shariya decided to step in and do the job. Where the government is absent, armed groups show up and there is a power struggle.

I am convinced that the [motivation] behind Al-Qaeda is never ideological; it is never economic. Yemen has always been a very poor country and this has never [in the past generated] groups like Al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Shariya. Rather, it is political. But power in Yemen is manipulated by one person, with the support of the United States, so that there is no social contract between the people and the government. Al-Qaeda remains as a sharp knife. The question is, who is cutting with this knife?

CM: What has been the role of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, both in terms of Wahabi ideology and Saudi money?

MQ-1 Predator DroneFAM: In Yemen we have a saying that Yemen is very far from God, but very close to Saudi Arabia. The establishment of the first groups of Al-Qaeda in Yemen was funded by Saudi Arabia. Right now Saudi Arabia is funding -- although not necessarily on an official level -- Yemeni citizens to go and fight in Syria like they did in the 1980s when they funded the mujahedeen who went to Afghanistan and who created the first Al-Qaeda. When the war is over in Syria -- if it is ever over -- these people will come back jobless, armed, well trained, and with heroic stories to tell. This is going to be a huge problem. And these [initiatives] are funded by Saudi cash.

CM: And fundamentalist Wahabi ideology? Is this being exported to Yemen?

FAM: Saudi Arabia continues to do so, but it has been doing so since the 1970s. It's already there, the schools, the funding. Wahabism has been a cash cow for religious leaders. Right now that funding is taking a sectarian shape, that of being anti-Iran. It's not because people are attracted by Saudi Arabia; not at all.

Gravity's Rainbow

"He won't hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you're still around, you hear the sound of it coming in. What if it should hit exactly -- for a split second you'd have to feel the very point, with the terrible mass above, strike the top of the skull …." -- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow.

V2 Rocket in WW II

It's clear from Al-Muslimi's on-the-ground experience in Yemen what the answers to Jane Harman's questions are. The campaign of drone strikes is having a terrifying effect on Yemeni society. The inscrutable American "kill list" is potentially hanging over everyone's head like a Damoclean Sword. Without an instant's notice, you could be liquidated, if not as the target of a drone strike, then as collateral damage simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by associating with the wrong people.

How many militants versus how many innocent civilians have been killed by the drone strikes is subject to debate, but what's beyond question is the effect of the drone campaign on Yemeni society; it is felt as a campaign of terror. Men, women, and children are afraid. It is a valley where the shadow of death falls on all Yemenis. This coupled with the dubious legality of such a campaign of extra-judicial killing, is clearly having a corrosive effect on the reputation of the United States.

The rapid growth of radical militancy in Yemen as noted by Al-Muslimi cannot be uncorrelated to the drone campaign in the country. It's hard to imagine that this mutually escalating extremism of the U.S. military on the one hand, and of Salafist militancy on the other, will not lead to deleterious consequences for both. With each throw of the boomerang it returns covered in yet more blood.

Ali Abdullah SalehFurthermore, is it any surprise that in country ruled since 1978 by a corrupt strongman such as Ali Abdullah Salah, that there should be considerable civic discontent? As Al-Muslimi notes, "Where the government is absent, armed groups show up and there is a power struggle." Ansar al-Shariya (a.k.a., Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is clearly not a secular organization, however, there is some reason to doubt the U.S. State Department's blanket assertions that it consists of militants solely concerned with exporting jihad to the west. And if it is increasingly so, could this be in part as a result of the drone strikes themselves?

In the words of the inimitable former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" By such tactics of drone strikes and extra-judicial killing is the United States generating ever more virulent enemies?

I can't help but think that the situation in Yemen illustrates an inability by the United States to discern friend from foe. In Vietnam, a long struggle against the pernicious influence of French colonialism, Japanese occupation, and American imperialism lead the Vietnamese into a militant campaign that, in turn, became the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. In a Cold War context it also became a proxy war for the Chinese and Russians in a zero-sum strategic game with the United States. The North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies were undoubtedly "communist," however, this communism was primarily situated within a context of a society trying to cast off imposed colonialism and re-establish self-determination.

Protests in YemenThe history of Yemen [see sidebar below] is saturated by colonialism and foreign meddling, carried out sequentially by Portuguese colonists, the Ottoman Empire, the British East India Company, the Egyptians, Chinese, and Soviets. Wahabi fundamentalist and Saudi political interests have continuously plotted and schemed to extend their influence on Yemen sand. Is it any surprise that a country subjected to such interference for two centuries would have its social and political fabric gravely distorted? Is it any surprise that it would provide fertile ground for the growth of Salafist jihadism? Is contemporary Yemen an illustration of yet another proxy war sweeping across the Saudi desert?

I don't know the answers to all these questions, but I do know that western powers urgently need to be posing them, astutely considering their approaches to foreign policy, and weighing carefully the results, lest the war of the boomerangs decimates innocent and guilty alike. There are other strategies available. Democratic development and economic assistance can work wonders, particularly if they don't come with manipulative strings attached. Foreign policy that hides the iron fist of corporate kleptocracy within a silken glove of foreign aid is soon exposed as such and wins few hearts amongst the populace. This is the nature of the Yemeni challenge: to staunch the bleeding or rub more salt into the wound?

A historical sidebar: Two centuries of Yemen in a nutshell

Ruled throughout mediaeval times by a convoluted web of theocratic dynasties headed by various Imams, Yemen gradually fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The Ottomans tangled with the British who had interests in the Arabian Peninsula in maintaining shipping lanes between Great Britain and India. In 1839 the British East India Company established a port in Aden (previously colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century) in the south of the country to stop pirate attacks. The Aden protectorate effectively partitioned the region into what would later become North and South Yemen, the former dominated by Shite and Ismaili groups; the latter by Sunnis.

The Ottoman Turks withdrew in 1918 while the British hung on until 1967. Everyone variously fought with everyone else. The Saudis often supported the British in struggles with guerillas in the Aden Protectorate (a.k.a., South Yemen), whereas the Egyptians meddled in the north to support coups there. Tensions between north and south variously ebbed and flowed.

When the British quit the region (in large measure because the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 put an end to their interests in keeping Aden as a transit point for shipping) the economy of South Yemen (always precarious save for Aden itself) tanked and a Marxist government soon took power. Supported by the Soviet Union and China, South Yemen became a radical Marxist state, which resulted in Moscow establishing naval facilities in Aden, an important base for them in the Cold War era.

Meanwhile in North Yemen, strongman Ali Abdullah Salah came to power in 1978. He eventually brokered a deal that would result in the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, with Salah taking on the presidency of the combined state. Almost immediately conditions began to deteriorate and by 1994 civil war broke out as the south attempted to secede (backed by Saudi Arabia and opposed by a new player on the Arabian block, the United States). Although the rebellion was soon crushed, the southern secessionist movement as continued to periodically rear its head, particularly in 2009 but continuing to the present.

Yemen also faces an additional secessionist movement in the northern part of the former North Yemen where Shiite militants known as the Houthis have been agitating for separation from North Yemen, perhaps in part for its perceived close relations with the United States. In the meantime, the inhabitants of the Hadhramaut region in the southeast of Yemen, are opposed to rule from either Sana'a or Aden, arguing that they are distinct from both North and South Yemen. They are also seeking independence from the Yemeni state.

 [Note: this is the second part of a series of articles on the military, moral and ethical dimensions of drone technology. The first part is, "The moral buffer of death: Missy Cummings on military drones."]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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