On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Drone On

It’s probably a matter of when, not if, al-Qaeda in Yemen successfully strikes the U.S. Yet the drone attacks currently keeping the organization at bay are also helping recruit more terrorists. Can you say “no-win situation”?

By Haley Sweetland Edwards

Perhaps the most poignant of the many tragedies that arise in Johnsen’s retelling of the last twenty-five years in Yemen is how, nearly eight years ago, the U.S. had almost routed al-Qaeda in Yemen. With half its members killed and the other half in prison or marooned in isolated outposts around the country, al-Qaeda in Yemen was in its death throes. But, mired in both Iraq, which was worse than ever, and Afghanistan, which wasn’t improving, the Bush administration pulled its attention away from Yemen. Like not finishing all the prescribed antibiotics, the U.S. allowed those surviving al-Qaeda militants to return, and grow into a stronger, harder-to-kill version of what they’d been before. In a devastating chapter, “Resurrecting al-Qaeda,” Johnsen recounts the rebirth of al-Qaeda in 2006 and 2007 under the leadership of Yemen-born Nasir al-Wihayshi, “a tiny, frail-looking twenty-two-year-old with a sharp nose and sunken cheeks,” who is still the head of AQAP today.

In 2009, when the Obama administration turned its attention to Yemen, it drew upon the same cocktail of targeted drone strikes and cruise missile attacks that had helped the Bush administration beat back al-Qaeda in Yemen in the early part of last decade. But in many ways, it was too late. Under Wihayshi, al-Qaeda in Yemen has been rebuilt into a diffuse group of cells that communicate with a central leadership but operate independently on the ground. Starfish-like, chopping off one arm—or killing a handful of leaders in a drone strike—no longer kills the center. “The surgical approach Obama and [chief counterterrorism adviser John O.] Brennan favored no longer seemed to be working. The U.S. kept killing al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but AQAP continued to grow,” Johnsen writes.

The broader discussion of targeted drone strikes and cruise missile attacks—alternatively referred to as signature strikes, terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS—are in some ways the best part of this book. Like all other major events in Yemen’s recent history, Johnsen offers a comprehensive description of U.S. signature strikes, some of which were extraordinarily effective in killing al-Qaeda leaders, some of which killed scores of innocent civilians, some of which killed U.S. citizens, and nearly all of which led to a sandstorm of unintended consequences. For example, in November 2002, a U.S. intelligence team tracked a cell phone belonging to Abu Ali al-Harithi, the so-called “godfather” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and, within four hours, targeted and killed him and five of his companions in a car. At the time, Saleh was allowing the U.S. to pursue drone attacks within Yemen’s borders, so long as they were kept secret, but on November 3—two days before the 2002 U.S. midterm elections—the Bush administration broke its promise. “The Hellfire strike was a very successful tactical operation,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told CNN that night, Johnsen writes. In other words, what could have been an unequivocal victory in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda instead sent U.S.-Yemeni relations into a tailspin, torpedoed Saleh’s credibility on the ground, and handed AQAP readymade fodder for recruiting tapes for years to come.

As has been well documented in the news lately, one unintended consequence of drone attacks in Yemen, and elsewhere, is that they tend to have the effect of galvanizing popular opinion against the U.S. and driving new recruits straight into al-Qaeda’s arms. In his detailed account of strike after strike, Johnsen makes clear that it’s more complicated than killing bad guys. When al-Qaeda fighters are killed by U.S. strikes, they are often quickly replaced from AQAP’s growing ranks; when strikes succeed in driving al-Qaeda from certain towns or regions, fighters simply resettle elsewhere. In early September, when a U.S. drone missed its mark and killed thirteen civilians, including three women, a local activist quoted by CNN put it succinctly: “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.” In 2010, the Obama administration estimated that al-Qaeda in Yemen had “several hundred” members; as of this year, the State Department puts that number at “a few thousand.”

In the last pages of the book, Johnsen describes the aftermath of one U.S. air strike earlier this year, which had been aided by three spies working with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. When al-Qaeda fighters discovered the spies in their ranks, all three were sentenced to death. At one of the public executions—a crucifixion—al-Qaeda leadership had asked that a young child named Salim, the son of one of the men killed in the U.S. air strike, witness the ceremony. “Dressed in a light blue robe with childish curls in his hair and most of his baby teeth still in place, Salim looked to be about six years old,” Johnsen writes, and then describes the grisly scene in which a man is nailed to a cross and lashed to a street post. “As the crowd surged forward for a better view, one of the men picked Salim up and put him on his shoulders. ‘That’s the traitor who killed my father,’ the boy said, pointing at the crucified man.”

Johnsen, by and large, does not offer guidance on the efficacy or morality of drone strikes or cruise missile attacks, or U.S. policy in Yemen over the last two decades. In general, he is a stater of facts, not a purveyor of opinions, and his book, by extension, offers the same. The Last
Refuge
is a cogent insight into what the U.S. has done in the past twenty-five years—a bird’s-eye view on those successes and failures, in all their shades of horrid gray—but it does not dispense advice to U.S. policymakers or predict the future. You can’t blame Johnsen from shying away from the crystal ball, but the resulting lack of a clear policy solution—indeed of any workable policy solution besides the status quo—is the most frustrating part of the book. By the end, we want nothing more than to be led by the hand down a prescriptive path to victory and peace, but, as Johnsen makes clear, there is no such path. In Yemen, there are no silver bullets.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.