The drone attacks which the Yemeni government says have killed at least 55 suspected al-Qaeda militants in the Mahfad region of central and southern Yemen show that current United States policy there is both self-defeating and dangerous. The attacks took place on April 20 and 21 and may have killed, among others, Nasir al Wuhayshi and Ibrahim al Asiri, both leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). U.S. officials confirm that they provided intelligence and logistical support, and the New York Times cites them as saying the Central Intelligence Agency operated the drones on this occasion, but the CIA — which runs the drone warfare programme — has refused to comment on any direct involvement by Washington; so has the Department of Defense. There have been 11 drone strikes in Yemen this year, and the country is now the main such target, as al-Qaeda seems no longer to have a presence in Saudi Arabia. Significantly, the government in Sanaa has acknowledged that the recent attacks killed three civilians; an attack in the same region in December 2013 killed 15 wedding guests, but as the U.S. does not acknowledge drone strikes, innocent victims’ relatives cannot even claim compensation. Yemen faces extreme poverty and illiteracy, weak and corrupt public institutions, and poorly equipped security forces.
The overriding fact, however, is that drone warfare by the U.S. is achieving the opposite of what it was meant to do. Under the 2001 Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the U.S. government can engage in targeted killings, including attacks on U.S. citizens (three of whom have been killed by drones), without further warrant; even the targets, namely “associated forces” of al-Qaeda, are loosely defined. President Barack Obama’s stated support for a repeal of the AUMF remains mere words, but on April 21 a Federal appeals court ruled, in response to a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times, that the administration must disclose, albeit in redacted form, papers giving its legal justification for killing U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism overseas. Secondly, a U.S. diplomat formerly stationed in Yemen estimates that every drone attack generates 40 to 60 new AQAP adherents, and notes that the U.S. mission in Sanaa has been reclassified as a non-family post, with staff now unable to live outside the embassy compound. The U.S. is not even at war with Yemen, a country where the popular uprising which started in 2011 was far more successful than those in other countries in the region. By replacing political engagement with drone warfare, the U.S. itself is becoming something of an al-Qaeda recruiting agent.