U.S. Needs a New Counter Terror Strategy in Yemen

We can add one more Steve McQueen-esque escape to Yemen’s history of prison breaks. Last Wednesday, 63 prisoners convicted of or awaiting trial for ties to Al-Qaeda escaped jail, by allegedly digging a 35m tunnel to freedom. This follows last month’s reported extremist militia take-over of the capital of the southern governorate of Abyan.

Although the militia’s ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remain disputed, it is clear that some ominous forces are taking advantage of political instability in Yemen. The U.S. drone campaign may seem like an effective measure to help fill the void as Yemen’s security forces are preoccupied with internal politics, but a closer look reveals the dangers of adding American missiles to this hazy conflict, and points to Yemen’s need for more diverse counter terror partners.

In a post worth reading, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen astutely illustrates how further militarizing the U.S. fight against AQAP could make skeptical, unaffiliated militant groups in Yemen more receptive to AQAP’s claim that the country is a legitimate field of battle, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Pushing these militias to ally with AQAP would erase any short-term gains from successful air attacks.

From a broader standpoint, the increasing reliance on drones highlights the U.S.’s lack of counter terror partners now that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is in disarray. Since 2001, the U.S.’s counter terrorism relationship with Yemen has been directed by Saleh, who put his relatives in charge of the various counter terror units trained and supplied by the U.S.

With Saleh gone, the U.S. is left without its interlocutor of 10 years. Meanwhile, Yemen’s counter terror leaders, Saleh’s relatives, are more preoccupied with preserving family power than preserving Yemeni security. Viewed in this light, increasing drones appears more reactionary than strategic, a risky move forced by the concentration of counter terror aid on one family.

American officials have assured the press that their efforts to fight terrorism in Yemen go beyond “one person,” and recent reports indicate that Yemeni government officials and opposition leaders recognize the need to combat AQAP. However, a fragmenting opposition and a ruling party refusing to budge, despite its leader’s absence, means the political settlement to make good on these commitments remains distant.

Moving forward, the U.S. must learn from its past mistakes by insulating counter terror aid from internal Yemeni politics, preventing it from being used as a patronage tool, and developing partnerships that extend beyond one man or family. One step could be ensuring that forces receiving U.S. training and equipment are overseen by leaders representing cross-regional and cross-tribal interests. Another possibility is finding a way to work directly with tribal leaders, who can direct regional efforts to combat AQAP within their own territories.

As for the Yemeni government, the U.S. must encourage a democratic transition in the fastest timeframe possible. Saleh’s return would lead to increased political violence, whereas a democratic Yemen would mitigate the risk that an autocrat could again monopolize counter terrorism forces.

Regardless of the potential pitfalls, targeted killings of AQAP leaders are a temporary solution. To eradicate the terror group, the U.S. needs a more comprehensive approach led by Yemeni forces on the ground. The sooner a new, legitimate government is in place, the sooner the U.S. can begin pursuing a more comprehensive and cooperative strategy. 

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