US drone attacks in Yemen protect no one but Al-Qaeda

Published on 9 January 2014 in Opinion
Farea Al Muslimi / / First Published Jan. 5 (author)

Farea Al Muslimi / / First Published Jan. 5


On Dec. 5, Yemenis woke to one of the most horrifying massacres in recent memory. Militants dressed in army uniforms attacked a hospital inside the ministry of defense compound in the capital, Sana’a, killing more than 50 and wounding more than 150.

The victims were men, women and children; patients, doctors and nurses; locals and foreigners. Footage from surveillance cameras showed a gunman attacking a surgeon as he operated on a patient in the emergency room, and another casually lobbing a grenade into a crowd of people cowering on the floor.

The spontaneous public backlash against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was more intense than anything the country has witnessed in decades. AQAP, which has long tried to cultivate an image of fighting on behalf of ordinary Yemenis against foreign aggression, was excoriated on TV, newspapers, radio and social media—all this was even before the group announced responsibility for the attack.

But then, on the following night after the government began broadcasting the videos, and as rage against AQAP was reaching a fevered pitch, an unmanned American military drone flying over the Rada’a province, some 150 kilometers south-east of Sana’a, fired a missile into Yemen. It struck a vehicle in a wedding procession, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more. Almost instantly, the public discourse shifted, the anger redirected. Al-Qaeda had almost destroyed itself but America came to its rescue.

In a country that has suffered almost a decade of U.S. drone strikes and watched them obliterate hundreds of innocent lives, it mattered little that the “official” target in Rada’a were several militants among the wedding goers. Rather, that drone strike reminded Yemenis, once again, that it is American terror that looms over them—constantly. As one Yemeni activist said: “If you escape AQAP, you don’t escape U.S. drones.”

AQAP seized the opportunity. On Dec. 22, the group’s military leader, Qasim Al-Raimi, apologized for the hospital attack in a video statement and promised to pay compensation to survivors and victims’ families. The mistake, he claimed, was that the group had attacked the wrong building, that their actual target had been the drone control center within the ministry of defense compound, jointly run by U.S. and Yemeni military personnel. However implausible this story may be, the apology and promise of compensation are in stark contrast to America’s cold silence for the civilians it killed.

American intervention did years worth of public relations on behalf of AQAP. While this is the latest and certainly the most blatant example, it is far from the only instance of the U.S. indirectly assisting Al-Qaeda’s PR machine—and even its human resources department. It was actually in the Rada’a district that a researcher, who recently visited the area, discovered a local AQAP leader who was complaining about new recruits not carrying out their regular religious prayers—they did not join Al-Qaeda for ideological reasons, but because they saw the group as a means to avenge relatives killed in U.S. drone strikes and for other reasons that have nothing to do with ideology.

In many parts of Yemen, it is not AQAP that is feared, but America. Not long ago, I visited the area of Khawlan, a 30-minute drive from Sana’a, where a U.S. missile struck a vehicle full of passengers, killing everyone, including a local schoolteacher. He’d been with his cousin, the driver, who had picked up other people as a normal fare ride. How were the cousins to know that these people were on the U.S. kill list? Children were waiting in the classroom for two hours the next morning before the news came that their teacher, Ali, was dead. Now, whenever teachers are late for class, students at the school become terrified that the U.S. may have killed them.

U.S. drones also undermine the legitimacy of America’s valuable ally in Yemen, president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. In August, Hadi visited the U.S., and while meeting with CIA director John Brennan a drone was fired into his hometown of Abyan. The president’s return to Yemen was followed by days of intensive drone strikes across the country. Hadi then publicly defended the drone strikes—all of which made him look like more of an American stooge than a man of his people. Hadi is already in an uphill battle to prove himself to Yemenis, as regional and Western powers had selected him as the only name on the ballot to replace former President Ali Abdulla Saleh.

There are also economic consequences for drone strikes. For example, the same month that Hadi was in the U.S., the Yemeni government announced that it qualified 18 international oil companies to bid on 20 onshore exploration blocks, mostly in the provinces of Hadramout and Marib, which hold more than 85 percent of the country’s oil reserves.

Hadramout and Marib also happen to be the sites of regular U.S. strikes that targeted not only suspected Islamic militants but also powerful local leaders, including a prominent religious cleric who preached against Al-Qaeda and many civilians. This has had locals increasingly protesting against U.S. drones and the central government’s complicity. This also exacerbates pre-existing tensions in Hadramout, where many Yemenis have long sought autonomy from Sana’a.

In such an environment, it is unclear how oil companies would mitigate the risk of their staff and operations being held hostage to angry locals after another drone strike.

While the U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, Washington has done an excellent job of having itself perceived as the enemy of the Yemeni people while helping Al-Qaeda in ways Al-Qaeda could never have dreamt of itself.

Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer.