How We Lost Yemen

The United States used the Pakistan playbook on Yemen's terrorists. It didn't work.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

For much of the past four years the United States has been firing missiles into Yemen. Drones, ships, and planes have all taken part in the bombardment, carrying out at least 75 strikes — including an alleged drone attack that killed five on the night of Monday, Aug. 5, bringing the death toll to a minimum of 600 souls, according to the best estimates.

But for all that, for all the strikes and all the dead, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to attract more members, growing from 300 in 2009 to well over a thousand today. U.S. officials almost invariably refer to it as the most dangerous branch of al Qaeda’s network, a designation that has remained constant since the United States started bombing Yemen in 2009. And the group, as the ongoing terrorism alert that has closed U.S. embassies has shown in dramatic fashion, remains capable of paralyzing U.S. diplomatic efforts across an entire region.

All this raises a rather simple question: Why? Why, if the U.S. counterterrorism approach is working in Yemen, as Barack Obama’s administration claims, is AQAP still growing? Why, after nearly four years of bombing raids, is the group capable of putting together the type of plot that leads to the United States shuttering embassies and missions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf?

The answer is simple, if rather disheartening: Faulty assumptions and a mistaken focus paired with a resilient, adaptive enemy have created a serious problem for the United States.

Part of the U.S. approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called al Qaeda’s core (though as al Qaeda’s strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories). Unfortunately, not all lessons are transportable. This means that the United States is fighting the al Qaeda that was, instead of the al Qaeda that is.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda was largely a group of Arabs in nonArab countries. In Yemen, al Qaeda is made up mostly of Yemenis living in Yemen.

This has two key implications for the United States. First, new recruits no longer need to travel abroad to receive specialized training. For years, men like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and the man believed by U.S. officials to be recently promoted to al Qaeda’s global deputy, had to spend time in training camps in Afghanistan to acquire the requisite experience. But since AQAP has developed its own network in Yemen, that is no longer the case. Now young Yemenis who want to join al Qaeda can study with Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s top bombmaker, without ever leaving home.

The United States has had some recent experience fighting a similar foe: al Qaeda in Iraq. But that was with the full weight of the U.S. armed forces. One of the many reasons that the Obama administration has settled on a drone-heavy approach to Yemen is the realization that sending large numbers of U.S. troops into Yemen would be a mistake of catastrophic proportions. For the past few years, AQAP has been making an argument that just like Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen is also under Western attack, which requires a defensive jihad from every Yemeni. AQAP has not been particularly successful making that argument, but if the United States were to send ground troops to Yemen, that would change. And AQAP would move from a few thousand fighters to many times that number.

The second drawback to assuming that what worked in one place would automatically work in another is what Yemenis call thar, or revenge a concept the United States appears to have overlooked in Yemen. The men that the United States is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen and clansmen with friends and relatives.

The United States can target and kill someone as a terrorist, only to have Yemenis take up arms to defend him as a tribesman. In time, many of these men are drawn to al Qaeda not out of any shared sense of ideology, but rather out of a desire to get revenge on the country that killed their fellow tribesman.

These multiple and simultaneous identities, along with the ability of Yemeni AQAP members to move throughout their country, make tracking and targeting them a logistical nightmare. It is hard to tell who is al Qaeda and who isn’t from several thousand feet.

Yes, some strikes have been spectacular successes, a perfect blending of intelligence and technology to hit the intended target. Two years ago, in September 2011, the United States killed Anwar alAwlaki, a U.S. citizen the United States believed to be the head of AQAP’s external operations unit. This year a U.S. drone took out Said al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee and the deputy commander of AQAP. But for all the highprofile successes trumpeted by the White House, there have also been tragic failures — drone strikes that went wrong and killed women and children or tribesmen who had no connection to al Qaeda. And even the successes may breed more militants.

Further compounding the problem is the U.S. insistence on focusing on personalities instead of the broader network. This is what CIA officials refer to as "mowing the lawn" of terrorism, but it comes at the expense of not attacking the root system.

The history of the United States in Yemen is littered with exactly this type of mistake. When Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military head and probably the organization’s single most dangerous member, escaped from prison in 2006, the United States paid them little attention, focusing instead on the two terrorists it knew at the time: Jamal alBadawi and Jabir alBanna, both of whom later surrendered themselves. Wuhayshi and Raymi, meanwhile, went on to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen and eventually to transform that tattered band of survivors into the AQAP we know today.

More recently the United States focused on Awlaki. Then came bombmaker Asiri’s moment in the sun, which hasn’t quite ended yet. And now we’re starting to learn about Wuhayshi, a man Osama bin Laden groomed for leadership during what amounted to a four-year mentorship in the late 1990s.

To some extent this focus on personalities is understandable. Like the old wanted posters former President George W. Bush was so fond of, the United States knows when it has defeated an individual: There is a smoking crater and al Qaeda releases a eulogy. But while the United States is scratching names off its most-wanted list, AQAP the organization continues to grow and it continues to prove itself capable of projecting the type of power that sends the United States into panic mode.

The Obama administration’s counterterrorism approach in Yemen is primarily concerned with preventing an immediate attack directed at America or its interests in the Middle East. This is a short-term goal that eclipses everything else, from longterm strategy to the stability of Yemen itself. The United States has yet to realize that this is not a war it can win on its own. Only the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen are in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.

The United States can do a lot of good in Yemen, but it can also do a lot of harm. And right now it is playing a dangerous game, firing missiles at targets in the hopes that it can kill enough men to keep AQAP from plotting, planning, and launching an attack from Yemen. After this terrorism alert that has sent America’s entire diplomatic and intelligence operatives in nearly two dozen countries scrambling, it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that’s more sustainable — and more sensible too.

<p> Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia. </p>