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

If the U.S. stops its targeted drone and missile strikes, AQAP will begin to grow and metastasize as it did before. But continuing on this path of militarization doesn’t seem to be working either. At best, the U.S.’s signature strikes are a stopgap measure, temporarily disrupting AQAP activities while failing to neutralize the root of the problem. According to a 2008 report by the RAND Corporation, more than 80 percent of the 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006 were eliminated after police or intelligence agencies infiltrated them or after they reached a political solution with the state; only 7 percent were eliminated by military force. In Yemen, where local police and intelligence networks are unreliable and underfunded, and local officers are sometimes in bed with al-Qaeda, counterterrorism options are severely limited. In the coming months and years, the U.S. will no doubt continue to pursue regular military strikes and increase its intelligence efforts on the ground. It should also continue to back Saudi and Arab-led counterterrorism efforts and ratchet up development projects in Yemen’s extraordinarily impoverished villages in an attempt to win—or at least have a dog in the fight—in the battle for Yemeni hearts and minds.

As it stands, AQAP is stronger and more sophisticated now than ever before, having come close to attacking the U.S. on its own soil three separate times. In the wake of the chaos following the Arab Spring last year, al-Qaeda in Yemen was able to overrun Zanjubar, a town in southern Yemen, and pillage its military laboratories. “It later used those and other materials to ‘transform the modest lab’ which had produced the 2009 underwear bomb and the 2010 cartridge bombs into a ‘modern’ one,” Johnsen writes. “By early 2012, al-Qaeda had plenty of bombs; what it lacked was individuals with passports that would allow them to travel freely in the West.” In another attempted attack on the U.S. in April, al-Qaeda handed a bomb to a British undercover agent who had been posing as a young suicide bomber, and instructed him to blow himself up on a plane bound for the U.S. The bomb, with two triggering mechanisms and no metal parts, was more sophisticated than anything AQAP had used before. While that particular attack was thwarted, the upshot is grim. It very well could be a matter of when, not if, AQAP is able to success fully strike the U.S. or one of its allies. What might happen next is anybody’s guess.

With a new generation of young men, including boys like Salim, wrapped in his light blue robe, being radicalized in al-Qaeda’s shadow and U.S. policy failing to fatally cripple al-Qaeda’s diffuse network, we are left at the end of The Last Refuge with a clear picture of a daunting, messy future that echoes that old jihadi’s prediction in Change Square last year. This new generation is indeed fighting “on a different scale, for different ends,” and while it may not last forever, it’s clear the U.S.’s war in Arabia isn’t going to end anytime soon.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.