The day before US missiles began raining down on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, hundreds of miles away—across the Red Sea—security forces under the control of Yemen’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, massacred more than fifty people who were participating in an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in the capital, Sana. Some of the victims were shot in the head by snipers.
Anti-government protesters demonstrate in Sanaa. The writing on the arms reads 'leave murderer'. (Photo: AP)
For months, thousands of Yemenis had taken to the streets demanding that Saleh step down, and the regime had responded consistently with defiance and brute force. But on March 21, a severe blow was dealt to Saleh that may prove to be the strike that sparked the hemorrhaging that ultimately brought down his regime. That day, the most powerful figure in Yemen’s military, Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division, threw his support behind the protests and vowed to defend Yemen’s “peaceful youth revolution.” Other senior military figures soon followed suit. Senior civilian officials, including scores of ambassadors and diplomats, announced their resignations. Important tribal leaders, long the most crucial element of Saleh’s grip on power, swung to the opposition.
Saleh, known in Yemen as The Boss, became the country’s leader in 1990 following the unification of the north, which he had ruled since the 1970s, and the south, which had been run by a Marxist government based in Aden. Saleh is a survivor who has deftly navigated his way through the cold war, deep tribal divisions and the “global war on terror.” Under the Obama administration, the United States committed increased military funding for his regime. Though he was known as a double-dealer, Saleh was tacitly viewed as Washington’s man on the Arabian Peninsula.
Throughout his reign, Saleh regarded the Houthi rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south as the greatest threats. For the United States, the concern was Al Qaeda. In the end, it was an autonomous mass of largely young protesters who proved the most potent challenge to Saleh’s power.
The prospect of Saleh’s departure is a source of great anxiety for the White House, but the United States has unintentionally played a significant role in weakening his regime. For more than a decade, US policy neglected Yemen’s civil society and development, focusing instead on a military strategy aimed at hunting down terrorists. These operations not only caused the deaths of dozens of civilians, fueling popular anger against Saleh for allowing the US military to conduct them; they also fed Saleh’s corruption while doing nothing to address Yemen’s place as the poorest country in the Arab world, which proved to be major driving forces behind the rebellion.
A serious case could be made that the stakes are much higher for the United States in Yemen than in Libya, yet its response to the repression of protests in the two countries has been starkly different. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials condemned the violence in Yemen, they stopped far short of calling for an end to the regime or for international military action. Instead, the US position was to call for a “political solution.”
A few days after the massacre in Sana, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Moscow, was asked if the United States still backed Saleh. “I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen,” Gates replied. What he said next spoke volumes about US priorities: “We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of Al Qaeda right now. And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.”
AQAP was the group that sent the “underwear bomber” to the States in December 2009. It was also behind the attempted “parcel bombings” in October 2010, and counts among its ranks radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In February National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter briefed Congress on the top threats faced by the United States worldwide. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization, is probably the most significant risk to the US homeland,” he declared before the House Homeland Security Committee. Attorney General Eric Holder said Awlaki “would be on the same list with bin Laden.” Other intelligence sources tell The Nation that the administration has exaggerated Awlaki’s role within AQAP, but they acknowledge that the mythology around him has developed a life of its own. Most analysts estimate that AQAP has 300–500 core members (others say the figure could be as high as several thousand).
From day one of his administration, President Obama and his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, have made Yemen a top priority because of the presence of AQAP. Although Saleh has often spoken out of both sides of his mouth when dealing with the United States, it is hard to imagine a more pliant leader in that region. Saleh has given permission to the United States to wage a secret war in Yemen, including bombings of AQAP camps and unilateral, lethal operations on Yemeni soil. As a bonus, Saleh has taken public responsibility for US strikes in an attempt to mask the extent of US involvement. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has ramped up training and equipping of Yemen’s military and security forces.
Without a guarantee that a successor government will grant US forces such access, peaceful protesters being gunned down will not be the top priority. “The feckless US response is highlighting how shortsighted our policy is there,” says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who recently left the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was a Yemen analyst. “We meekly consent to Saleh’s brutality out of a misguided fear that our counterterror programs will be cut off, apparently not realizing that, in doing so, we are practically guaranteeing the next government will threaten those very programs.”
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Retired US Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a veteran Special Forces officer, has known Saleh since 1979, having served for years as the Defense and Army attaché to Yemen. Fluent in Arabic, Lang was often brought into sensitive meetings as a translator for other US officials. He and his British MI6 counterpart would often go hunting with Saleh. “We would drive around with a bunch of vehicles and shoot gazelle, hyenas and the odd baboon,” Lang recalls, adding that Saleh was a “reasonably good shot.” Saleh, Lang says, is “a very charming devil,” describing his long rule as “quite a run in a country where it’s dog-eat-dog. It’s like being the captain on a Klingon battle cruiser, you know? They’re just waiting.” According to Lang, Saleh proved a master of playing tribes against one another. “There’s a precarious balance all the time between the authority of the government and the authority of these massive tribal groups,” he says. “The tribes will dictate the future of Yemen, not AQAP.”
During the US-backed mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, thousands of Yemenis joined the jihad—some of them coordinated and funded directly by Saleh’s government. When the jihadists returned to their home country, Saleh gave them safe haven. “Because we have political pluralism in Yemen, we decided not to have a confrontation with these movements,” Saleh told the New York Times in 2008. Al-Jihad, the movement of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who rose to become bin Laden’s number-two man, based one of its largest cells in Yemen in the ’90s.
Saleh saw Al Qaeda as a convenient sometime ally that could be used to protect him from the real threats to his power, including the secessionist movement in the south and Houthi rebels in the northern Saada province. The Houthis view his government as a puppet for the United States and the Saudis, and believe they are fighting to preserve their Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam. Even though Saleh is a Zaidi, the Houthis allege he has allowed Wahhabi (i.e., radical Sunni) forces to threaten their existence. Indeed, the Saudis have bombed the Houthis on numerous occasions. Between 2004 and 2010, Saleh’s forces fought consistent battles with the rebels, known in Yemen as the “six wars.”
Beginning with the 1994 civil war, Saleh deployed jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan in his battle against the southern secessionists and the Houthis in the north. “They were the thugs that Saleh used to control any problematic elements. We have so many instances where Saleh was using these guys from Al Qaeda to eliminate opponents of the regime,” according to a former top US counterterrorism official with extensive experience in Yemen who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations on which he worked. Because of the jihadists’ value to Saleh, “they were able to operate freely. They were able to obtain and travel on Yemeni documents. Saleh was their safest base. He tried to make himself a player by playing this card.”
The result was that, as Al Qaeda expanded throughout the ’90s, Yemen provided fertile ground for training camps and recruitment. During the Clinton administration, this arrangement barely registered on the counterterrorism scale outside a small group of officials, mostly from the FBI and CIA, who were tracking the rise of Al Qaeda.
That would change on October 12, 2000, when a small motorboat packed with 500 pounds of explosives blasted a massive hole in the USS Cole, an American warship that had docked in the port of Aden, killing seventeen sailors and wounding more than thirty others. “In Aden, they charged and destroyed a destroyer that fearsome people fear, one that evokes horror when it docks and when it sails,” bin Laden later wrote in a poem that was used in an Al Qaeda recruitment video. The successful attack, according to Al Qaeda experts, inspired droves of recruits—particularly from Yemen—to sign up with Al Qaeda and similar groups.
After 9/11, President Bush put Yemen on a list of potential early targets in the “war on terror”; he could have swiftly dismantled Saleh’s government despite Saleh’s pre-9/11 declaration that “Yemen is a graveyard for the invaders.” But Saleh was determined not to go the way of the Taliban, and he wasted little time making moves to ensure he wouldn’t.
The first was to board a plane to the United States in November 2001. During his meetings in Washington, Saleh was presented with an aid package worth up to $400 million in addition to funding from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Crucially for the Bush administration, the new US relationship with Saleh would also include expanding special forces military training. It was this training that would permit US Special Forces to deploy discreetly in Yemen while allowing Saleh to save face domestically. As part of Saleh’s deal with the Bush administration, the United States created a “counterterrorism camp” in Yemen run by the CIA, Marines and Special Forces that was backed up by Camp Lemonier, the US outpost in the nearby African nation of Djibouti, which housed Predator drones. Located just an hour from Yemen by boat, the secretive base would soon serve as a command center for covert US action in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
“Saleh knows how to survive,” says Emile Nakhleh, a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA who ran its office on political Islam during the Bush administration. After 9/11, Saleh “learned very quickly” that he “had to speak the anti-terrorism language,” Nakhleh adds. “So he came here seeking support, seeking financing. He would come here or speak to us in a language we would like and would understand, but then he would go home and do all kinds of alliances with all kinds of shady characters to help him survive. I don’t think he really honestly believed that Al Qaeda posed a serious threat to his regime.”
As construction began on Lemonier, the United States beefed up the presence of military “trainers” inside Yemen. Among the forces inserted alongside the trainers were members of a clandestine military intelligence unit within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) known as The Activity. While officially in Yemen as trainers, they quickly set out to establish operational capacity to track Al Qaeda suspects in the country, hoping to find and fix their location so that US forces could finish them off. A year after Saleh’s meeting with Bush at the White House, the US “trainers” would set up their first “wet” operation. It wouldn’t be their last.
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In 2002 US intelligence operatives discovered that the man they had fingered as one of the masterminds of the Cole attack, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was in the country. US officials had dubbed him “the godfather of terror in Yemen.” On November 3 the JSOC signals intelligence team in Yemen located Harithi in a compound in Marib province after he used a mobile phone number that US intelligence had traced to him months earlier. “Our special-ops had the compound under surveillance,” recalled Gen. Michael DeLong, at the time deputy commander of US Central Command (Centcom). They were “preparing to storm in when Ali exited with five of his associates. They got into SUVs and took off.”
As part of the operation, the CIA launched an MQ-1 Predator drone from its outpost in Djibouti into Yemen’s airspace. This wasn’t just a spy drone—it was armed with two anti-tank Hellfire missiles. After CIA Director George Tenet gave the green light for action, a five-foot-long Hellfire missile slammed into the SUV, blowing it up.
Among those killed in the strike was Ahmed Hijazi, aka Kamal Derwish, a US citizen born in Buffalo, New York. After the attack, US officials publicly tied Hijazi to a group in Buffalo that came to be known as the Lackawanna Six. Hijazi had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the alleged plot of six Yemeni-Americans to provide material support to Al Qaeda.
Unnamed US officials quoted in media reports revealed that the strike was a US operation, but they were reluctant to discuss the US role. “We didn’t want publicity,” recalled DeLong. “If questions did arise, the official Yemeni version would be that an SUV carrying civilians accidentally hit a land mine in the desert and exploded. There was to be no mention of terrorists, and no mention of missiles fired.” But then, on November 5, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirmed that it was a US strike. “It’s a very successful tactical operation, and one hopes each time you get a success like that, not only to have gotten rid of somebody dangerous but to have imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures,” he declared on CNN. Saleh was described as being “highly pissed” at the disclosure. “This is going to cause me major political problems,” he complained to Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of Centcom.
It was the first publicly confirmed targeted killing by the United States outside a battlefield since Gerald Ford banned political assassinations in 1976. In response to criticism from human rights groups, the Bush administration pushed back hard, asserting its right under US law to kill people it designated as terrorists in any country, even if they were US citizens. “I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Fox News a week after the attack. “The president has given broad authority to US officials in a variety of circumstances to do what they need to do to protect the country. We’re in a new kind of war, and we’ve made very clear that it is important that this new kind of war be fought on different battlefields.” She added, “It’s broad authority.”
From 2003 to 2006, Saleh’s government largely fell off the Bush administration’s counterterrorism radar, save for the occasional meeting to demand action on the Cole suspects. In 2006, while the administration was singularly focused on Iraq, a mass prison break in Sana would prove to be a seminal event in the reconstruction of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Among those who escaped were several key figures who would form the nexus of the leadership of AQAP, including Naser al-Wuhayshi, bin Laden’s former personal secretary. On February 3, 2006, Wuhayshi and twenty-two others tunneled out of their maximum-security prison cell into a nearby mosque. Wuhayshi later boasted that they performed morning prayers before walking out the front door. Wuhayshi would go on to unite the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda under the regional banner of AQAP. Qasim al-Rimi, another escapee, would become AQAP’s military commander. In 2007 Saleh released Fahd al-Quso, a Cole bombing suspect who had been jailed in 2002. In May 2010 Quso appeared in an AQAP video, threatening to attack the United States and its embassies and ships.
As Al Qaeda regrouped in Yemen, it began to carry out a series of small-scale actions, primarily in Marib province, the site of the 2002 drone strike that killed Harithi. In March 2007 Al Qaeda members assassinated the chief criminal investigator in Marib, Ali Mahmud al-Qasaylah, for his alleged role in the strike. In an audio message, Rimi announced that Wuhayshi was officially the new head of Al Qaeda in Yemen. In the message, Rimi vowed that the group would continue to take revenge on those responsible for the strike. Two weeks later, suicide bombers attacked a convoy of Spanish tourists in Marib, killing eight of them along with their two Yemeni drivers. In January 2008, they attacked a group of Belgian tourists.
In all, there were more than sixty documented Al Qaeda attacks on Yemeni soil by the end of the Bush administration. Over the years, US military aid and CIA financing has steadily increased. “When [Al Qaeda] starts creating problems in Yemen, the US money starts flowing,” asserts the former senior counterterrorism official. “For Saleh, Al Qaeda is the gift that keeps on giving. They are his number-one fundraiser to get Saudi and US money.”
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During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain and other Republicans attempted to portray Barack Obama as too caught up in the niceties of civil liberties and international law to deal with the threat of global terrorism. But in fact, from the first days of his administration, the president was hyper-focused on escalating the covert war against Al Qaeda and expanding it far beyond Bush-era levels, particularly in Yemen.
In April 2009 Gen. David Petraeus, then head of Centcom, approved a plan developed with the US Embassy in Sana, the CIA and other intelligence agencies to expand US military action in Yemen. The plan not only involved special-ops training for Yemeni forces but unilateral US strikes against AQAP. Though Petraeus paid lip service to the cooperation between the United States and Yemen, he was clear that the United States would strike whenever it pleased. In fact, he issued a seven-page secret order authorizing small teams of US special-ops forces to conduct clandestine operations off the stated battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was marked “LIMDIS,” short for “limited distribution.” The directive, known as a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force (JUWTF) Execute Order, served as a permission slip of sorts for special-ops teams. “Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress,” reported Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who was allowed to read the order.
The order spoke volumes about the continuity of foreign policy from the previous administration to the Obama White House. Under the Bush administration, the Pentagon regularly justified such actions with the mantra that the forces were not at war but rather “preparing the battlefield.” What was significant about Petraeus’s 2009 order was that it extended and solidified the Bush-era justification for expanding covert wars under President Obama.
During a September 6, 2009, meeting with Brennan in Sana, Saleh opened the door wide for the United States, pledging “unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations,” according to a classified US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “Saleh insisted that Yemen’s national territory is available for unilateral CT [counterterrorism] operations by the U.S.”
The largest US military attack on Yemen in history, part of a covert program code-named Indigo Spade, soon followed. On December 17, 2009, JSOC launched surveillance aircraft to survey the intended targets. The operation kicked off at dawn, as a Tomahawk cruise missile was fired from a submarine positioned in the waters off the coast of Yemen. Armed with cluster munitions, it slammed into a group of houses and other dwellings in Al Majalah, a village in the southern province of Abyan. Meanwhile, another strike was launched in Arhab, a suburb of Sana, followed by raids on suspected Al Qaeda houses conducted by Yemeni special-ops troops who had been trained by JSOC forces as part of a special Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU). Authorization for the strikes was rushed through Saleh’s office because of “actionable” intelligence that Al Qaeda suicide bombers were preparing for strikes in Sana. The target in Arhab, according to intel reports, was an Al Qaeda house believed to be protecting a big fish: Qasim al-Rimi.
When word of the strikes got out, the Pentagon at first refused to comment, directing all inquiries to Yemen. Saleh’s government issued a statement taking credit for carrying out “simultaneous raids killing and detaining militants.” President Obama called Saleh reportedly to “congratulate” him and to “thank him for his cooperation and pledge continuing American support.” But as images of the Abyan strike emerged, some military analysts questioned whether Yemen had the type of weapons that were used. Among those found at the scene were BLU 97 A/B cluster bomblets, which explode into some 200 sharp steel fragments that can spray more than 400 feet away. In essence, they are flying land mines capable of shredding human beings into small pieces. The bomblets were equipped with an incendiary material, burning zirconium, to set fire to flammable objects in the target area. The missile used in the attack, a BGM-109D Tomahawk, can carry more than 160 cluster bombs. None of these munitions were in Yemen’s arsenal.
As outrage spread across Yemen, fueled largely by the assumption that it was a US bombing, the Yemeni Parliament dispatched a delegation to investigate. When the delegates arrived in the village, they “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture” along with “traces of blood of the victims and a number of holes in the ground left by the bombing…as well as a number of unexploded bombs,” according to their report. The investigation determined that the strike had killed forty-one members of two families, including seventeen women and twenty-one children. Some of the dead were sleeping when the missiles hit. Rimi was not among the dead, and survivors said they had no connection to Al Qaeda. The Saleh government insisted that fourteen Al Qaeda operatives had been killed, but the Yemeni investigators said the government could provide them with only one name. Four days later, three more civilians were killed when they stepped on unexploded cluster bombs. After the strike, a senior Yemeni official told the New York Times, “the involvement of the United States creates sympathy for Al Qaeda. The cooperation is necessary—but there is no doubt that it has an effect for the common man. He sympathizes with Al Qaeda.”
According to documents made available by WikiLeaks, Stephen Seche, the US ambassador to Yemen, sent a cable to Washington on December 21. Referring to the strikes, it said the Yemeni government “appears not overly concerned about unauthorized leaks regarding the U.S. role and negative media attention to civilian deaths.” The cable said that Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi told Seche that “any evidence of greater U.S. involvement such as fragments of U.S. munitions found at the sites—could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S.” Yemen, according to the cable, “must think seriously about its public posture and whether its strict adherence to assertions that the strikes were unilateral will undermine public support for legitimate and urgently needed CT operations, should evidence to the contrary surface.”
A week after the Abyan airstrike and the ground raids near Sana, President Obama signed off on another hit, based in part on information provided by a prisoner taken in the Arhab raid. This time the target was a US citizen: Anwar al-Awlaki. On December 24, US forces carried out an airstrike in the Rafd mountain valley in Shabwa province, Awlaki’s ancestral homeland. US and Yemeni intelligence indicated that Awlaki was meeting with some of his cohorts there, including Wuhayshi, bin Laden’s former secretary, and AQAP leader Saeed al-Shihri. Yemeni officials charged that the men were “planning an attack on Yemeni and foreign oil targets.”
The attacks killed thirty people, and media outlets began reporting that Awlaki and the two Al Qaeda figures were among them. But CBS News interviewed a source in Yemen who said that not only was Awlaki still alive but the attacks were “far from his house and he had nothing to do with those killed.” In the coming months clear evidence that Awlaki, Wuhayshi and Shihri were not killed in the attack would emerge, as each of them appeared in video or audio messages.
The administration’s focus on AQAP grew more intense after it was revealed that the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—who allegedly tried to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009—had trained in Yemen.
In early 2010, the Obama administration canceled the scheduled repatriation of more than thirty Yemenis held at Guantánamo who had been cleared for release, citing the “unsettled situation” in the country. Yemenis constituted the single largest bloc of prisoners held there.
Meanwhile, the administration continued to downplay the US role in Yemen, with officials publicly repeating a version of the same line: the United States is only providing support to Yemen’s counterterrorism operations. “People ask me—the question comes up, Are we sending troops into Yemen?” Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a lecture at the Naval War College on January 8. “And the answer is, We have no plans to do that, and we shouldn’t forget this is a sovereign country.” Those comments were echoed two days later by the president himself. Obama said bluntly, “I have no intention of sending US boots on the ground” into Yemen.
Despite the official denials, a State Department Inspector General’s on-the-ground review of the US Embassy in Sana found that “steadily growing military elements based at the embassy” were part of an expanding “U.S. military footprint” in Yemen. By late January 2010, JSOC had been involved with more than two dozen ground raids in Yemen, which kicked off with the December 17 strikes. Scores of people were killed in the campaign, while others were taken prisoner. At the same time, JSOC began operating drones in the country as the covert war expanded. What started as a day of coordinated strikes was turning into a sustained targeted killing campaign coordinated by JSOC. “After the December thing with Abdulmutallab, [Saleh] had to kind of show more support for our actions,” recalls Nakhleh, the former senior CIA officer. “He would play the game—he would kind of look the other way when we would do certain kinds of military operations, kinetic operations against some radical groups there. When he was put under pressure, he would say it was his own operations. He played the game.”
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While US military and intelligence agencies began plotting more strikes in Yemen, General Petraeus traveled there on January 2 for another round of meetings with Saleh and his top military and intelligence officers. He kicked off the meeting by informing Saleh that the United States would be more than doubling “security assistance” to Yemen, to more than $150 million in 2010, including a proposed $45 million to train and equip Yemen’s CTU forces for aerial warfare against AQAP. According to a classified diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Saleh asked Petraeus for twelve attack helicopters, saying that if the US “bureaucracy” held up the transfer of the choppers, Petraeus could strike a backdoor deal with the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to effectively launder the transfers. Petraeus told Saleh he had already discussed such an arrangement with the Saudis.
Saleh authorized the United States to strike AQAP when “actionable intelligence” was available, but officially he did not want US forces conducting operations on the ground in Yemen. “You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center,” Saleh said, according to the cable. But everyone at the meeting knew it was a collective lie they would all promote. While praising the December strikes, Saleh “lamented” the use of cruise missiles, according to the cable, because they are “not very accurate.” In the meeting, Petraeus claimed that “the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site,” which was blatantly false. Saleh told Petraeus he preferred “precision-guided bombs” fired from fixed-wing aircraft. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said. Deputy Prime Minister Alimi then joked that he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan and Shabwa were US-made but deployed by Yemen.
Shortly after that meeting, Alimi told reporters in Yemen, “The operations that have been taken are 100 percent Yemeni forces. The Yemeni security apparatus has taken support, information and technology” from “the US and Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries.” But most Yemenis were not buying the story. Ahmed al-Aswadi, a leader of the opposition al-Islah Party, said “it is believed by most Yemenis” that the recent strikes were “carried out by US forces.”
While JSOC forces continued to operate in Yemen, training Yemeni forces and conducting “kinetic” actions, the airstrikes proceeded. On May 25, 2010, a US missile struck a convoy of vehicles in the Marib desert that “actionable intelligence” had concluded was heading to a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives. The intelligence was partly correct, but the men in the vehicle were not Al Qaeda members. Among those killed was Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib province, who was a top mediator in the government effort to demilitarize members of AQAP. Shabwani was in a key position to negotiate, given that his brother, Ayad, was the local AQAP leader US and Yemeni forces had tried to take out in the January 15 and 20 strikes. Shabwani’s uncle and two of his escorts were also killed in the attack, which took place near an orange grove on Ayad’s farm. As with the other strikes, the Yemeni authorities took public responsibility and the Supreme Security Committee apologized for what it said was a raid gone wrong.
But this hit came with much higher stakes because the attack killed one of their own people. Within hours of the attack, Shabwani’s tribe attacked the main oil pipeline running from Marib to the Ras Isa terminal on the Red Sea coast. The tribesmen also attempted to take over the presidential palace in the province but were repelled by Yemeni army forces and tanks. Yemeni lawmakers demanded that Saleh’s government explain how the strike happened and who was really behind the widening aerial war.
What cannot be disputed is that the strikes, especially those that killed civilians and important tribal figures, were giving valuable ammunition to Al Qaeda for its recruitment campaign in Yemen and its propaganda battle to destabilize the US-Yemen counterterrorism alliance. Yemeni government officials said the series of strikes from December to May had killed more than 200 people, only forty of whom were affiliated with Al Qaeda. “It is incredibly dangerous, what the US is trying to do in Yemen at the moment, because it really fits into AQAP’s broader strategy, in which it says Yemen is not different from Iraq and Afghanistan,” asserted Princeton University’s Gregory Johnsen in June 2010, after Amnesty International released a report documenting the use of US munitions in the Yemen strikes. “They are able to make the argument that Yemen is a legitimate front for jihad,” said Johnsen, who in 2009 served as a member of USAID’s conflict assessment team for Yemen.
In the summer of 2010, after months of sustained US and Yemeni airstrikes and raids, AQAP hit back. In June a group of AQAP operatives carried out a bold raid on the Aden division of Yemen’s secret police, the Political Security Organization. During an early-morning flag ceremony at the PSO compound, the operatives opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades as they stormed the gates. They gunned down at least ten security officers and three cleaning women. The purpose of the raid was to free suspected militants being held by the PSO, and it was successful. That raid was followed by a sustained assassination campaign aimed at bumping off high-level Yemeni military and intelligence officials. During Ramadan, which began in August, AQAP launched a dozen attacks. By September as many as sixty officials had been killed, with a substantial number shot dead by assassins on motorcycles. This method of attack became so common that the government banned motorcycles in urban areas in Abyan.
Then a plan to attack a US target unfolded that would come to be known as the “parcel bomb” plot. On October 29, Americans watched as breaking news coverage showed US warplanes escorting Emirates Flight 201 to an emergency landing at JFK Airport. Images were broadcast of other planes being swept at Philadelphia and Newark airports. That night, Obama said that explosives on the planes had posed a “credible terrorist threat.” None of the bombs detonated. But once the Yemen connection was clear—the explosive material, concealed in printer cartridges, had been shipped from Yemen—there was no debate within the administration: all eyes focused on AQAP.
Foust, the former DIA analyst, characterizes Obama’s response like this: “He immediately sent drones and special operations guys to Yemen. It was immediately, Let’s send JSOC. Send in the ninjas, is what he does.” Without providing details, which he says are classified, Foust asserts that he has seen targeted killing operations conducted that he believes were warranted, and he does not believe such strikes are “theoretically a bad thing.” He was deeply concerned, however, about the standards that were being used to determine who would be targeted. “Frankly, most of the time when I was working on Yemen was spent arguing” with Special Operations Command-Yemen and other DIA analysts “about evidentiary standards,” he recalls. “The evidentiary standard for actually killing people off, to me, is frighteningly low.”
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The popular uprising against the Yemeni regime this past winter sent the US counterterrorism community scrambling to develop contingency plans. Saleh’s fall “offers an opportunity for the Yemeni people to build a more modern state,” says Nakhleh. At the same time, it “creates a challenge for the United States as Washington continues its counterterrorism policy against Al Qaeda and its franchise group in Yemen, AQAP.”
“It is something that we spend a lot of time working on. I know I lose a little sleep at night thinking about this particular problem,” Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said recently. According to Foust, plans are being made to move the center of counterterrorism operations to Djibouti, the current hub of US operations against Libya, “if relations with the next [Yemeni] government don’t work out.” But, he says, of more concern is “what happens to the [US] training mission, as well as the [intelligence] collection programs in place—no one knows if or how those would be affected by a new government. We don’t have good ties with the opposition movement, which is itself chaotic and will probably begin infighting soon anyway, so it’s tough to call how they’ll react.” Saleh’s fall “could certainly have a negative impact on US CT operations in Yemen,” says Johnsen, adding, “I’m particularly worried that AQAP is gaining weapons and money in some parts of the country as the military begins to break down in outlying areas.”
Yemen “has a number of more pressing problems that will, if left unchecked, all help AQAP gain strength in the coming years,” Johnsen cautions. “In Yemen, there is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP. The US simply can’t bomb them out of existence. That has been tried before in Yemen and failed.”
There is no doubt that when President Obama took office, Al Qaeda had resurrected its shop in Yemen. But how big a threat AQAP actually posed to the United States or Saleh is the subject of much debate. What was almost entirely undiscussed was whether US actions—the targeted killings, the Tomahawk and drone strikes—caused blowback and whether some of AQAP’s attacks were motivated by the undeclared war the United States was fighting in Yemen. “We are not generating good will in these operations,” says Nakhleh. “We might target radicals and potential radicals, but unfortunately in a crisis other things and other people are being destroyed or killed. So in the long run it is not necessarily going to help. To me the bigger issue is the whole issue of radicalization. How do we pull the rug from under it?”
It was the Bush administration that declared the world a battlefield where any country would be fair game for targeted killings. But it was President Obama, with Yemen as the laboratory, who put a bipartisan stamp on this paradigm—which will almost certainly endure well beyond his time in office. “The global war on terror has acquired a life of its own,” says Colonel Lang. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. And the fact that this counterterrorism/counterinsurgency industry evolved into this kind of thing, involving all these people—the foundations and the journalists and the book writers and the generals and the guys doing the shooting—all of that together has a great, tremendous amount of inertia that tends to keep it going in the same direction.” He adds, “It continues to roll. It will take a conscious decision on the part of civilian policy-makers, somebody like the president, for example, to decide that, ‘OK, boys, the show’s over.’” But Obama, he says, is far from deciding the show’s over. “It seems that this is going to go on for a long time.”