Yemen Was Washington’s Counterterrorism Success Story. Not Anymore.

As U.S. special operations forces pull out of an increasingly anarchic Yemen, the fight against al Qaeda just got even harder.

Yemeni soldiers and armed militiamen loyal to Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, also known as the Popular Resistance Committees, stand guard near the airport in the southern city of Aden on March 19, 2015, during clashes with Yemeni special forces opposed to the country's president. The battle left five people dead and forced the international airport to close. The heavily armed troops, who are allied with Shiite militia in control of the capital Sanaa, advanced inside the airport perimeter but the Hadi loyalists managed to secure the runway, security sources said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The sudden departure of U.S. special operations forces from Yemen marks a devastating blow to a counterterrorism campaign that Barack Obama’s administration had heralded as a success story, officials and experts say, as Washington suffers another intelligence reverse in the fight against the al Qaeda group that poses the greatest threat to Americans.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf sought Monday, March 23, to downplay the weekend exodus of about 100 U.S. special operations forces who had remained in Yemen even after the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa closed last month amid growing unrest between the government and Shiite Houthi militias seeking to unseat it.

But officials familiar with the special operations mission said years of training and hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment that U.S. forces had given to Yemeni troops now will all but certainly be lost. In addition, they said, nothing beats face-to-face contacts with intelligence sources in an era when terrorist networks increasingly are able to hack into U.S. government systems.

“Because we are withdrawing completely, we will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shiite militants are doing in the region,” House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. He was referring to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has repeatedly tried to attack the United States, and to the Islamic State.

McCaul was responding to State Department comments earlier Sunday that the United States continued to “actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen” while retaining counterterrorism capabilities nearby.

“Maybe we can launch drone strikes from other countries, but if you don’t have that intelligence on the ground, how do you know who to hit and where and when?” McCaul asked.

On Monday, Harf insisted that “we have not been forced to suspend our counterterrorism operations.”

“Although we have temporarily relocated our remaining U.S. government personnel from Yemen, we continue to actively monitor threats and have resources prepared in the region to address them,” she told reporters.

She was likely referring to Washington’s continued ability to fly drones and manned intelligence-gathering flights over Yemen, according to a U.S. special operations officer familiar with the U.S. campaign in Yemen. The United States keeps a drone base in nearby Saudi Arabia and has more drones plus a special operations task force in Djibouti, just a few minutes flying time across the Bab el-Mandeb strait from Yemen.

The special operations officer, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the mission by name, said the covert troops’ departure will create huge long-term costs to intelligence gathering in Yemen. He said it’s doubtful that Yemeni government troops who allied with the U.S. forces will remain organized for long, and he predicted that many local fighters will disband as the government collapses.

“If at some future point you want to go back in there, you’re starting from scratch,” the officer said.

Moreover, he said, U.S. equipment that was delivered to Yemeni forces is sure to be gone by the time U.S. troops return. Already, the Defense Department has lost track of more than $500 million worth of military gear it had provided to Yemen, according to the Washington Post.

U.S. special operations forces have been in Yemen since 2002. Their mission has focused not only on training Yemeni security forces, but also on targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the U.S. government believes is the foreign terrorist group that poses the greatest risk to the American homeland.

Their departure this weekend, for what the Obama administration described as security reasons, followed the Feb. 11 closing of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and the evacuation of its staff.

With Yemen’s instability growing increasingly dire, AQAP appears determined to prove it remains a major force even as Islamic State militants ramp up attacks on Shiites. On Saturday, a day after the Islamic State’s bombings of two mosques that killed at least 137 in Sanaa, AQAP claimed it had killed more than 30 Shiite militiamen in roadside bombings in central Yemen, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militants’ online messages.

On Monday, a Yemeni division of the Islamic State said it had killed 29 government security forces and took credit for killing two other security officers whom AQAP had previously claimed to have assassinated, SITE reported.

Even with a limited U.S. special operations presence on the ground in Yemen, AQAP was able to maintain and enlarge its safe haven there, said American Enterprise Institute scholar Fred Kagan.

Without any personnel in-country, the counterterrorism outlook is even bleaker, he said, adding that operations that rely on aerial reconnaissance alone would not be sufficient to “do serious harm to AQAP as an organization.”

The special operations officer put it more bluntly. “You can’t do partnership from 8,000 miles away,” he said.

Photo credit: AFP

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor