The drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan are a huge blow to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As with the death of Osama bin Laden, the reality of what this means in the fight against Al-Qaeda is unclear. But if the threat from AQAP is ever to be neutralized completely, the real challenge is to target not only the militants themselves, but also the environment in which they thrive.
Yemen is quickly becoming the new hotspot in the war on terror. Since the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda merged in 2009, AQAP has shifted from a regional to a global focus. Although AQAP’s attacks lack sophistication so far, this is a disturbing trend. The group has claimed responsibility for both the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and a failed plot in 2010 to detonate explosives hidden in cargo planes bound for the U.S. These attacks are the closest any Al-Qaeda affiliate has come to carrying out an attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
This reality has not been lost on the Obama administration. The U.S. is building a series of drone bases around the Arabian Peninsula and ramping up strikes against targeted individuals like Awlaki. The loss of Awlaki and Khan weakens AQAP, at least in the short-term. Both men were U.S. citizens instrumental in AQAP’s English language recruiting efforts. Awlaki’s propaganda efforts in the U.S. were unparalleled, and he inspired homegrown terrorists like Nidal Hasan and Faisal Shahzad. Khan also played an important role as the editor of Inspire, AQAP’s English language magazine.
Recent events reveal the benefit of drone strikes, but it is also worth considering what they cannot accomplish. This tactic was successful in the past — in fact, in 2002, a drone strike killed the leader of AQAP, then called Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and reduced it to insignificance until a prison break in 2006 led to the group’s revival. But since then, AQAP has adapted its organizational model to be less hierarchical, appointing local leaders so the branch can survive even if certain leaders are taken out. Targeted killings of AQAP leaders still weaken the group, but the impact is not nearly as strong against a more networked structure.
Drone strikes can also have unintended consequences. For example, collateral damage creates an image problem for the U.S. that can serve to validate AQAP’s ideology in the eyes of the people. A botched U.S. bombing raid in 2009 in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla killed several women and children, aiding AQAP recruitment since it reinforced the image of the U.S. as a hostile aggressor. Regardless of how effective drone strikes are in targeted killings, they are not a panacea to Yemen’s terror problem and anti-American sentiment.
An even bigger problem is that relying primarily on drone strikes will do little to fix Yemen’s troubles in the long-term, perpetuating the conditions favorable to extremism. The Yemeni government is battling an insurgency by Houthi tribes in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Rampant poverty and rapidly dwindling oil and water resources put a strain on the economically underdeveloped nation. Additionally, the protests that began with the Arab Spring earlier this year weakened the already unpopular regime. As the nation moves towards the brink of chaos, many fear that a collapse in the regime’s authority could create a power vacuum in which AQAP will continue to gain power and influence.
It is not up to the U.S. or any other nation to rebuild Yemen. But drone strikes are not enough to ensure the long-term peace and stability necessary to eradicate AQAP. Most Americans balk at any suggestion of increasing foreign aid, but this funding should be an element of counterterrorism strategy. Of course, Yemen’s weak government and lack of infrastructure makes effectively distributing aid extremely difficult. It will be crucial to avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan and not focus on short-term solutions that yield a quick impact but are ultimately unsustainable.
The first priorities should be establishing the rule of law and expanding sources of government revenue. So far, little thought has been given to Yemen’s post-oil economy, but options include mineral exploitation and expanding maritime shipping and trade services. Transitioning to a legitimate post-Saleh regime is the first, and most difficult, step in transforming Yemen to a place where terrorist groups can no longer thrive. Ultimately, it is up to the Yemeni people to define their future, but that is no reason for the U.S. to overlook the complexities that make Yemen a priority in counterterrorism.
Yemen’s troubles are far from over, and AQAP’s success is a symptom of a larger problem that drone strikes alone cannot address. The U.S. is right to focus on Yemen as the next front in the war on terror. But only by taking a more holistic approach to the threat can AQAP be eradicated once and for all.
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