The Trajectory of American Drone Attacks in Yemen

The Beginning

Yemen’s tryst with American drone attacks began in the year 2000 when the USS Cole was bombed on 12 October. The USS Cole was a United States Navy guided-missile destroyer and was docked in the Aden harbor during the attack. Around 17 American sailors were killed and 39 injured during the attack. It was believed that an Al Qaeda operative named Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi was the master-mind behind the attack.1 He was a citizen of Yemen but was trained by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.  The porous border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia helped Al Qaeda flourish in this region.

After 9/11 and the subsequent declaration of the War on Terror by the US, Yemen became an important ally. On one hand, Washington realized the importance of gaining a strong foothold in Yemen to attack Al Qaeda in the region and on the other hand, the Yemeni government headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh understood the importance of the US support to maintain its authoritarian assertion against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.2

A couple of month’s post 9/11, on 25-27 November 2001, Saleh visited Washington and publically stated his support for the War on Terror. He met President Bush and pledged his assistance for the US policies in West Asia. In return, he sought economic and military support as well as assurances of reduced pressure on matters such as democratization. He signed a US$ 400m deal with Washington which not only included an economic package but also military aid.3 As per the deal, the US was allowed to legally step into the soil of Yemen to ‘create a counter-terrorism camp’ which was to be run by the CIA and the US Marines in order to train Yemeni soldiers to combat Al-Qaeda terrorists. The then CIA director George Tenet was the man behind this deal and he assured Saleh that this was to the benefit of Yemen and its government to have strong Special Forces trained by the US military who could provide quick support from their local base in Yemen. Yemen also received high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicles and armoured personnel carriers. The coup de grace of the deal was the approval by Saleh to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over Yemen.4 According to Jeremy Scahill, the predator drones were parked in Camp Lemonier in Djibouti which is just 245kms flying distance away from Aden in Yemen.5

Until November 2001, the US military aid to Yemen was negligible. There was no military financing while military sales had dwindled down to just eight percent of the total that was sold in early 1990s. The International Military and Training Programme had also reduced to one-third of its intake. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had already closed their doors by mid-1990s and there was almost no civil aid coming from Washington to Yemen. Suddenly, things changed dramatically after the November 2001 meeting.6

Few months later, in March 2002, the US Vice President Dick Cheney visited Sana’a and discussed increasing military aid in terms of deputation of US military advisors to train counter-terror and special forces units in the Yemeni army. Saleh, on the other hand, agreed to share intelligence against Al Qaeda in Yemen.7  These high profile meetings played a very important role as they slowly set the stage for US interference in the domestic arena of Yemen. It not only established the infrastructure for future military excursions in the region but also provided legitimacy to the US to pursue the same. Further, it helped the US to officially declare Yemen as part of the combat zone in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.8 This allowed the US to deploy its Special Forces in Yemen. The Yemeni government, facing stiff opposition from its population, stated that the US soldiers were deployed to aid the home forces against Al Qaeda and denied that it would allow the US troops to take part in any operations on its territory.9 However, the reality of the statement was soon showcased.

The First Drone Attack in Yemen

On 3 November 2002, the CIA conducted its first lethal drone strike outside a warzone in Yemen by killing six men including al-Harethi.10 These half-dozen men, including an American citizen, were travelling in a car through the desert in the Marib province (which is east of Sana’a) when they were killed by a Hellfire missile shot from a US Predator drone.11 This attack was one of the first successful strikes by American drones which set a precedent of targeted killing through drones in Yemen.

The 2002 drone attack became the subject of debate regarding the legality of killing through drones which were earlier used only for surveillance purposes. The Yemeni cabinet suggested that the six men died due to accidental explosion of explosives that were being carried in the car.12 In Washington, on the other hand, officials quickly admitted that the CIA had carried out the operation.13 This forced the Yemeni cabinet to issue a brief statement urging “people to be united against terrorist activities that targeted our country, its people and its national economy…”14 In the statement, there was no clarity if Yemeni authorities were aware of this sudden attack or if any permission was sought by Washington to conduct the strike.

Many countries like Sweden, Germany and France put across their disapproval of the strike. The Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh said, “If the USA is behind this with Yemen’s consent, it is nevertheless a summary execution that violates human rights. If the USA has conducted the attack without Yemen’s permission, it is even worse. Then it is a question of unauthorized use of force.”15 Increasing international pressure against the drone attack pushed the US on its back foot and it released a statement stating, “American citizens working for al Qaeda overseas can legally be targeted and killed by the CIA under President Bush’s rules for the war on terrorism. The authority to kill U.S. citizens is granted under a secret finding signed by the president after the 11 Sept. attacks that directs the CIA to covertly attack al Qaeda anywhere in the world. The authority makes no exception for Americans, so permission to strike them is understood rather than specifically described.”16 In other words, with this statement the US openly declared two major developments

  • They could strike any country at any time without requiring the permission of the stated country if they perceive that the country was involved in the war on terrorism and an American citizen was involved in the same. This widened the theatre of the War on Terror.
  • America was not accountable to any country or authority for any strikes they carried out for the cause of War against Terror.

However this statement was challenged vehemently by the Americans themselves. The CIA authorities claimed that the American citizen Kamal Derwish who was in the car along with Qaid Salim Sinan al-Harethi was the leader of an Al Qaeda cell in sub-urban Buffalo, New York. This was challenged by the then president of the American Muslim Council’s Buffalo chapter Mohamed Albanna who said that “Derwish has not been tried and has not been found guilty so, in that sense, he’s still an innocent American who was killed. That’s what the law states.”17

The matter was raised in the UN and after much deliberation, on January 2003, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Asma Jahangir issued her first report on US drone strike that took place outside of the battlefield. The report noted that, “The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against the excesses of non-State actors or other authorities, but these actions must be taken in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. In the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the attack in Yemen constitutes a clear case of extrajudicial killing.”18 The US, in retaliation, responded by stating that, “‘The Government of the United States respectfully submits that inquiries relating to allegations stemming from any military operations conducted during the course of an armed conflict with al Qaeda do not fall within the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.”19 With this, the matter came to a closure in the UN, despite several countries contesting the statement.

With the increasing negative public opinion, Condoleezza Rice, the then President’s national security adviser stepped in and stated that there was no constitutional violation in conducting the drone strike. She argued that this was within the ambit of the constitutional rights of the President when America was at war.20 However, she didn’t clarify that in this case, America was not at war against a country but against a non-state actor whose presence was spread across countries. Thus, the constitutional rule of Presidential power during conflict/war as it exists could not be applied in this case and the legality of the issue is still not resolved. Andrew Cohen, the legal analyst in CBS News sums up this debate by stating, “this is legal because the President and his lawyers say so—it’s not much more complicated than that.”21

Drone Attacks under Obama Presidency

Under the Bush Presidency, there was just one drone attack which has been discussed previously. In 2009, with the onset of Obama Presidency, the drone game in Yemen completely changed. The same year was an important milestone in the history of Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in January 2009 when two distinct branches of Al Qaeda came together to form a single militant organisation. In its inaugural video, aired in early 2009, the then leader of AQAP Nasir al-Wuhayshi formally declared the union of the Saudi and Yemeni strands of Al-Qaeda.22 However, the antecedents of this insurgent group can be traced back to 1990s when hundreds of mujahedeen returned from Afghanistan after years of fighting with the Soviets. Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changing geo-political landscape, these former mujahedeen were not allowed to resettle in their own countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. They were instead welcomed by the then Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh  with open arms.23 He dispatched these militants on a ‘jihad’ to fight against the Soviet-backed Marxist government of South Yemen. The southern secessionists were crushed by these experienced jihadists and subsequently, Northern and Southern Yemen were unified under Saleh’s rule in 1990.24 These militants settled in South Yemen and started to form rudimentary terror outfits. However, after the November 2001 meeting between Saleh and President Bush, these outfits became the primary target of the Yemeni army. From 2002 to 2006 President Saleh led an active operation against them and they were forced to either flee from Yemen or remain in hiding.25

On 3 February 2006, there was a massive prison break in Yemen, in which 23 alleged al-Qaeda militants in Yemen escaped, including Jamal al-Badawi, Qasim al-Raymi and Nasir al-Wuhayshi (who became the leader of AQAP when it was officially formed in January 2009).26  These three militants fled to Southern Yemen and started taking in new recruits and experienced Arab fighters who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The group established several bases to launch fresh attacks and were protected by the local tribes who had increasingly gone disenchanted with the Saleh government. The group rallied on the grounds of “resurrecting al-Qaeda from the ashes to save Yemen from the despotic rule of Saleh and destroy America which had completely crippled the country through drone attacks.”27  This incident of prison break is instrumental in completely turning the history of Al-Qaeda. Several analysts like Gregory D. Johnsen have argued that President Saleh was an accomplice to the same.28 In November 2005, when President Saleh visited the U.S. in the hope of being rewarded for Yemen’s help in the War against Terror, he was informed that the Yemeni government was suspended from the USAID program. President Bush, during his meeting with President Saleh called on the latter’s bluff regarding Yemen’s participation in the War on Terror especially when it was providing safe haven for Al-Qaeda operatives. He quoted the then US Ambassador to Yemen Thomas Krajeski who had claimed that “all democratic processes in Yemen had stopped.” On the other hand, President Saleh reiterated his firm stand against terrorism and corruption but to no avail. Johnsen points out that ‘permitting a prison break in a high profile prison cell allowed Saleh to dictate his terms again to the U.S.’29  Daniel Byman concurs and argues that ‘Saleh realised that it needed terrorists on the move to continue getting aid from the U.S.’30

Nevertheless, the escape of key militants from the prison set the course for the formation of AQAP. Soon after their escape, they were able to attempt simultaneous attacks on oil and gas facilities in Marib and Hadhramaut. In March 2007, Al-Qaeda officially announced its re-emergence, naming al-Wuhayshi as its commander.31 It underlined its renewed presence in the country with a suicide attack on a convoy of Spanish tourists a few days later.  They started carrying out several scattered suicide attacks across Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The series of suicide attacks culminated in September 2008 when the U.S. Embassy was attacked in Riyadh, resulting in 18 deaths.32 The U.S. started pressurising the Saudi monarchy to renew its fight against Al Qaeda. Subsequent raids and intense crackdown forced several Al Qaeda militants to flee to their brethren in Southern Yemen. The time was ripe for the formation of a unified militant organization in the form of AQAP.

The first official operation of AQAP took place in August 2009 when they tried to attack Saudi Arabia’s security chief Prince Mohammed Nayef. The suicide bomber had concealed a high explosive device inside his body and tried to blow away the convoy of the Prince.33 Even though he was successful, the Prince survived. Few months later, in November 2009, Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist suddenly opened fire at Fort Hood Army base when he was preparing to deploy with his unit. Around 13 people were killed and 30 were wounded. He was declared a hero by the AQAP who accepted that he was radicalized by the group.34 On Christmas day of the same year, a Nigerian man Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a bomb concealed in his underwear in an attempt to destroy a Northwest Airlines Airbus A330. He confessed to the CIA investigators that AQAP operatives had trained him in Yemen.35 In light of these events, in January 2010, the Yemeni government launched a major offensive against AQAP, with the support of numerous U.S. troops. The US not only provided intelligence but also deployed unmanned drones and fired cruise missiles.36 They targeted the organisation’s senior leaders and training camps in the governorates of Shabwa, Abyan and Marib. During 2009 and 2010, there were only three drone strikes while the majority of the offensive was carried out by the Yemeni military who were assisted by US troops stationed in Yemen.

Drone Attacks during Arab Spring (2011-2014)

The tides again changed for AQAP when the Arab Spring reached the shores of Yemen in 2011. From then till early 2015, AQAP became embroiled in the domestic politics of Yemen. Due to the popular unrest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh who came to power in 1978 ceded his position to Abd Rabbuh Mansour Al Hadi under the proposals of a GCC initiative on 23 November 2011.37 Mansour Hadi became the President of Yemen on 21 February 2012 in an uncontested election. The transition of power was followed by a series of uprisings and protests that created a situation which swiftly deteriorated into a civil war. Protestors loyal to the Saleh family sporadically attacked several government institutions that were violently responded by the pro-government forces. The Shia group known as the Houthis, who live in the north-western part of the country began running a parallel government in three provinces of Yemen, namely al-Jawf, Hajjah and Sa’ada. They consolidated their power using the power vacuum created by the uprisings in 2011.38 Due to the lack of political stability as well as the complete failure of the military structure in Yemen, AQAP began to expand its territorial hold and began running a parallel government in the Southern province in alliance with various local tribes. Osama bin Laden, who was safely ensconced in Pakistan during this time, sent out a statement urging AQAP to focus on “filling the gap in governance and winning over the civilian population as Yemen was the most suitable for jihad.”39

The rise of AQAP was a red flag to the White House which compelled the US military to increase its momentum in their Yemen campaign. This led to a sharp spike in the number of drone attacks in 2011 from the previous years.40 One of the most high-profile drone strikes during the year was carried out on 30 September 2011 when Anwar-al Awlaki was killed. Al-Awlaki was a well-known Yemeni-American preacher but the US officials allege that he was a recruiter for AQAP. The attack was the first known case of the American government targeting and killing a civilian through a drone strike.41 Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son was also killed in a drone strike which was labeled as a collateral death by the US. However, many analysts claim otherwise.42

Soon after, in September 2012, Mansour Hadi announced an army offensive against AQAP in the Southern Province backed by US forces. This was supported by a three-fold increase in the number of drone attacks authorised by President Obama. There were 47 drone strikes that were authorised and which resulted in the deaths of 279 people.43 This, however, did not stop AQAP from launching major terror attacks. In May 2012, as a way of protesting against the new government which they felt was a puppet government under the leadership of western powers, they bombed a military parade is Sana’a that killed more than 120 people.44

By the beginning of 2013, Yemen became embroiled in democratic processes like the National Dialogue Conference in which most of the stake holders including President Hadi became involved.45 There were series of dialogues that took place between the stake-holders in order to re-write the Constitution of Yemen. This made the armed offensive against the AQAP take a back seat for Yemeni forces. Without a partner, the US military too scaled down its operations during the year by limiting its drone strikes to 24.

The NDC slowly started unraveling by the end of 2013. The Southern leaders boycotted the NDC as they rejected the notion of a coalition government and instead called for a split in the country.46 Completely disillusioned by the present government and its lack of steps to improve the conditions, several thousands of people came out and protested against the ruling government. On 14 October thousands of people demonstrated in Aden in support of secession and self-determination. They issued a statement calling on the Yemeni government and all military personnel stationed in the south to withdraw by 30 March 2015.47  Over the following weeks, pro-independence rallies continued. In December 2014, several government buildings in Aden were taken over by the members of the Southern Movement.

In the garb of independence rallies, AQAP escalated its terrorist attacks in the country, targeting Houthis and government institutions. On 13 February 2014, AQAP militants carried out an attack on the central prison in Sanaa, freeing 29 prisoners, including 19 suspected of affiliation with AQAP.48 Between April to December 2014, they carried out 28 distinct terror blasts in which more than 86 soldiers and around 150 Houthis tribesmen were killed.49 However, the US reduced the number of drone strikes further to just 17 air strikes.50 This change in tactic can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, President Obama did not want to interfere in the domestic on goings in Yemen.51 Active military presence or carrying out military strikes without Yemeni military involved would have been construed as direct interference by the US in the internal affairs of the country. President Obama chose to de-escalate drone attacks and pursue ‘wait and watch’ policy instead. Secondly, in his second term President Obama became hesitant to use force or commit troops especially in the wake of anti-ISIS campaign.52 He further consolidated regulations on drone strikes by putting into place several restrictions on drone strikes especially those that had the potential of high civilian casualties. Additionally, he insisted on routing all drone strike commands through the White House instead of the Pentagon.53 This further stifled the US military plan of action in Yemen. His three Secretaries of Defence— Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel accused the administration of excessively interfering in military matters. In his memoir, Robert Gates said that “the controlling nature of the Obama White House and the staff took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”54

Saudi led-intervention in Yemen (2015- )

In Yemen, the domestic situation worsened drastically.  The Houthis consolidated their power in Sana’a by January 2015 which compelled Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden in February.55 In this backdrop, AQAP managed to expand its territories in the southern part of the country and create a mini-state. Even though its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was killed in an American drone strike, the organisation continued to flourish under its new leader Raymi. A senior Yemeni government official said the war against the Houthis ‘provided a suitable environment for the … expansion of al Qaeda.  The withdrawal of government army units from their bases in the south allowed al Qaeda to acquire very large quantities of sophisticated and advanced weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and armed vehicles.’56 Most of the Yemeni forces withdrew from the southern provinces including Mukalla – which is one of the main sea-ports in the Gulf of Aden – and moved towards the North. The city was left completely defenceless which allowed AQAP fighters to seize government buildings and free around 150 of their comrades from jail. They were supported by tribal leaders who aided them by looting army bases in a bid to claim independence from the North. The entire area became awash with advanced weaponry which was given by the U.S. to the Yemeni government to fight AQAP in the south. They also looted Mukalla’s central bank branch of an estimated US$ 100 million.57

With this swollen war loot, they established a quasi-state with Mukalla as its capital.  The city of Mukalla was important to the AQAP as it provided them with easy access to sea-trade as well as provided them with a strong defence. They abolished taxes for local residents and established Sharia courts. They also gained control over the ports in Mukalla and Ash Shihr where they began to impose tax and custom tariffs on ships and traders.58 They started operating speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters to impose fees on international ship traffic including tankers and private traders.. They earned an estimated amount of US$ 2 million every day on these port taxes. They also began to run a black market for fuel smuggling. Most of the oil infrastructure came under the control of tribal leaders who were in alliance with AQAP.59

On the other hand, in North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its allies like UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain declared Operation Decisive Storm on 25 March 2015 against the coup by the Houthis which had forced President Hadi to flee the country.60 The next few weeks saw a highly destructive operation with a broad spectrum of aerial and naval attacks. The operation was declared to be over on 21 April 2015. The Saudi Defence Ministry announced the commencement of a new phase— Operation Restoring Hope and the Saudi National Guard was ordered to join the military operation.61 The air and naval operations have continued till date.

The Obama government did not wholeheartedly support the Operation although they realized that defeating the Houthis was of great importance as they were supported by the Iranians.62 It attempted to balance between its own war against AQAP and to please its partner in the region—Saudi Arabia – during the Operation. It provided intelligence as well as logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition. Further, it increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies to aid them during the Operation.63 By the end of the Obama Presidency in 2016, the US started following an often-confusing policy towards Yemen. On one hand, President Obama criticized Saudi Arabia for indiscriminate air strikes which had led to a high civilian casualty by temporarily banning the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia, while on the other, he authorized increasing number of drone strikes. This can be attributed to the fear of increasing Iranian influence in the war-devastated country. One can argue that President Obama did not want Yemen to become a war theatre between Saudi Arabia and Iran with both the countries directly intervening. Thus, he tried to rein in Saudi Arabia while continuing aggression against AQAP.

President Obama sanctioned the massive expansion of the drone program in Yemen which was termed as the ‘global apparatus for killing’ by the media.64 The use of drones became synonymous with Obama’s ambition to escalate the war against al-Qaeda while extricating the US military from costly ground wars in West Asia. Thus, targeted killing through drones became a viable option.

Drone Attacks during Trump Presidency

Donald Trump took over as the US President on 20 January 2017 when he inherited an escalating counter-terrorism war in Yemen. He gave the issue his priority attention by visiting the headquarters of the CIA on his first full day in office as President and evaluating its drone program. According to The Washington Post, “Trump seemed unimpressed as the head of the CIA’s drone campaign told him about how the agency, aiming to limit civilian casualties, had created unique munitions to that end. Instead he asked, “Why did you wait?” when the CIA explained how they verified the target and waited till they were far away from civilian spaces.”65 Immediately after the meeting, there was a dramatic increase in the number of drone attacks in Yemen.

Further, to escalate the drone-war, Trump has completely taken a U-turn in the US presidential policies regarding drone attacks in Yemen. In 2013 President Obama declared Yemen as no-longer a part of the active war zone and thus, any planned aerial attack approval had to be taken through the White House. The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the policy by declaring Yemen as an area of ‘active hostilities’ in March 2017.66 He also eliminated many safeguards that President Obama had put into place an effort to minimize civilian casualties. One of the requirements that was completely removed was that officials had to verify that civilians weren’t in danger from a planned drone attack before the authorization of same. Andrew Cockburn, an analyst, points out that any Obama period restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicles during conflict have been “loosened or simply shredded.”67 In other words, President Trump removed all restrictions that were put in place for the drone program by the Obama administration instead, he took upon an aggressive stand on the usage of drones to fight terror. General Thomas Waldhauser, who was in charge of US military operations in West Asia during 2017 said that he now had “leeway to order strikes without clearing them with the White House.”68

In 2017, the number of drone strikes increased to double of 2016. The US military along with the CIA has carried out 127 airstrikes including 86 drone strikes against AQAP and ISIS in Yemen.69 This is a massive increase from 47 strikes that were carried out in 2016, which was the last year of the Obama administration. Till September 2018, there were 35 confirmed US drone strikes.

Table1. Types of Strikes by various US Administrations

Year Administration Drone Strikes Air Strikes Total Strikes
2002 Bush 1 0 1
2003 Bush 0 0 0
2004 Bush 0 0 0
2005 Bush 0 0 0
2006 Bush 0 0 0
2007 Bush 0 0 0
2008 Bush 0 0 0
2009 Obama 1 0 1
2010 Obama 2 0 2
2011 Obama 10 3 13
2012 Obama 47 9 56
2013 Obama 24 1 25
2014 Obama 17 0 17
2015 Obama 24 0 24
2016 Obama 42 1 43
2017 Trump 86 41 127
2018 Trump 26 9 35

Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The surge of drone strikes in Yemen can be attributed to three main factors. First, it aids President Trump to keep one of his most important campaign promises—“to bomb the s— out of ISIS.”70 Since the Battle of Raqqa in 2017, there has been an increase in terror activities by newly formed group in Yemen known as the ISIS-Y. It is one of the offshoot groups that has mainly members who have returned from Syria and Iraq after their territory was occupied by the Syrian/US forces. It operates small attack cells and is more deadly than AQAP as they mainly focus on suicide bombing.71 They are slowly occupying the vacuum left by the displacement of AQAP in southern Yemen. Thus, as part of ‘War of Annihilation’, southern Yemen became part of the larger war against ISIS.72

Second, President Trump not only loosened the rules of drone strikes, he also widened the war by authorizing the US Generals to target certain civilians who were related to terrorists. In an interview with Fox News, President Trump said, “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”73 In other words, the CIA ‘target list’ as authorized previously by President Obama would no longer be limited to key terrorist leaders but has been expanded to include foot soldiers, preachers, family members of identified terrorists and any other individual who is seen to be involved with the targeted individuals. This definition definitely broadens the scope of attack and the CIA has definitely stepped up its activities in relation to this.

Another aspect of increasing drone strikes due to widening of war theatre is the complete authorization by President Trump to the CIA and the US military to carry out drone strikes without White House approval.74During the Obama presidency, especially in his second term, there was a deliberate attempt to centralize the command structure of military decisions by routing all resolutions through the White House. President Trump, on the other hand, has completely outsourced his authority as Commander-in Chief for military affairs to the Pentagon and the US military.75 The group of Generals surrounding President Trump – which includes the then Secretary of Defence General James Mattis (Marine Corps), National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (U.S. Army), Chief of Staff General John Kelly (Marine Corps) and the Chairperson of the Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford (Marine Corps) – have been given the authority to raise troop levels in Iraq, Yemen and Syria which is an authority that is usually held by the White House.76 This ‘out-sourcing of drone warfare’ became evident when the US Air Force dropped a powerful bomb on an alleged ISIS complex in Afghanistan without the approval of President Trump who later said, “What I do is I authorize my military. We have given them total authorization and they have done the job as usual.”77  The CIA director Mike Pompeo further added that, “When we have asked for more authorities, we have been given it. When we ask for more resources, we get it.” This ‘outsourcing of authorization’ has allowed the President to distance himself from the actions of the US military.78 The latter, on the other hand, has embraced this power by intensifying the air strikes over Yemen and Syria.

Lastly, the changing dynamics of the US-Saudi relations prompted President Trump to increase the number of drone attacks in Yemen. The emergence of Saudi Arabia as a regional hegemon under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has pushed the US to reconsider its relations with the kingdom. Apart from this, there is increased American arms sale to the kingdom due to the Yemen conflict.79 Thus, there is very little possibility that President Trump will try to antagonize its strongest ally in the region by not aiding them during the conflict.

Is the Drone Warfare effective in Yemen?

After 16 years of drone attacks in Yemen, the question still lingers on the effectiveness of the same. More than 345 drone attacks have killed hundreds of innocent civilians and children. These attacks have been criticized by several countries and human rights organizations, especially on the question of its legality. This had taken the form of debates regarding the legal regime that can be used to judge targeted drone attacks. The human rights communities as well as academics have termed it “extra-judicial executions” while their opponent, i.e. the US, has reasoned its legality in terms of self-defence which allows targeted killing as legitimate acts of war.80

The more imperative question that needs to be asked other than the legality angle is the effectiveness of the drone program. The US has deemed this warfare tactic as ‘successful’ and thus, it has steadily increased its usage in Yemen.81 The success of the same can be evaluated using certain parameters which are: Killing of AQAP members; deterring the growth of AQAP and other terror activities; and helping create a stable government in Yemen.

Table 2: Impact of air/drone strikes from 2002-2018

Year No. of air and drone strikes No. of People Reported Killed
2002 1 6
2003 0 0
2004 0 0
2005 0 0
2006 0 0
2007 0 0
2008 0 0
2009 1 34
2010 2 7
2011 13 132
2012 56 279
2013 25 129
2014 17 127
2015 24 103
2016 43 209
2017 127 184
2018 35 25

Source: Adapted from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism82

Figure 1: Total US Strikes in Yemen by Year and Administration

Source: Adapted from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism83

Figure 2: Total US Strikes in Yemen by Strike Type

Source: Adapted from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism84

One cannot deny that the drone program has been successful in eliminating several AQAP leaders who have directly or indirectly aided terror activities across the world. Nonetheless, these leaders are quickly replaced by others in the organization after their death.85 Thus, the program is successful in the short term but is a big failure in its attempt to break the organization. Secondly, as no full investigation of the targeted individual is ever carried out, one is dependent on the US narrative regarding the profile of the same. Thus, the numbers of AQAP members and supporters that have officially been reported killed as part of drone warfare is questionable and most probably exaggerated. Since the Trump Presidency has consented to kill a terrorist regardless of civilians around him, this has further inflated the numbers. It is extremely difficult to establish civilian status of individuals who are part of the collateral damage. Hence, most of the identities are guess-work instead of proper identification.

The US government claims that the drone program has diminished the possibilities of growth of AQAP.86 However, the ground reality is contrary to this narrative. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and extremely unpopular among the local Yemenis. A survey in 2017 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that the US drone program in Yemen justified attacks by AQAP on Americans and other westerners.87 As the drone war intensified, infrastructural and economic conditions also worsened, apart from increasing civilian deaths which directly affected the locals and their lifestyle. The indiscriminate targeting undermined any sense of loyalty towards the Yemeni government. In this backdrop, AQAP provided an alternative to the civilians to fight against the Americans using terror to claim justice and empowerment. Thus, the drone program is a ‘gift from heaven’ for AQAP.

Lastly, the continued use of drones during the transitional period of governance when the new constitution was being framed to usher in a more accountable government indicated the lack of respect for Yemeni sovereignty.88 The constant violation of the same, irrespective of different governments, breeds a sense of disrespect and frustration among the local Yemenis regarding their own government. The public opinion has become increasingly anti-government which aids AQAP and other terror outfits to thrive.

Hence, analysis of the metrics of drone warfare challenges the US narrative of the program being successful. Instead, it has provided a platform for AQAP to spread its narrative and provide an alternative to the Yemenis. The limited success of the program has no long term benefit as it has turned local Yemenis against their own government as well as the US. However, the world is slowly waking up to this never-ending conflict in Yemen. In the US, there are already winds of change that are slowly challenging the increased drone attacks in Yemen. Around 50 members of the US House of Representatives backed a bipartisan resolution that invoked the 1973 War Powers Act. They declared that the Congress never authorized US drone attacks in Yemen, as it is legally bound to do under the Act. They directed President Trump to withdraw all American military personnel from the country. On the other hand, many state leaders compelled the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis to come together for negotiation. Oman, who is a trusted ally of both the parties, has taken the initiative to be the mediator and host the dialogues. This will shift the focus from military operations to political processes which will help Yemen slowly limp back to normalcy in the coming years. There is a need to support this transformative process by every stake-holder in the region, especially the US, which needs to move beyond its current confusing policy of drone attacks as well as support to the Saudi-coalition to bring stability in the country. President Trump has to curtail the drone program to give peace and stability a fighting chance in Yemen.

Note: This article was originally published in the Air Power Journal, Volume 13, No. 4, Winter 2018 and has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.

Dr. Dipanwita Chakravortty

Dr. Dipanwita Chakravortty is a Senior Editor at The Political Chronicler. She received her doctorate degree from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her doctoral work on Gender Debates in the Israel Defence Forces. She is also a receipient of the Israel Government Scholarship 2015-16 during which she was a visiting fellow at the Ben-Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, Israel . She writes on Foreign Policy, Security affairs, Middle East GeoPolitics and counter-terrorism. She has published her work in various edited books, journals and online magazines.

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