America’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles to hunt for terrorist suspects is best known in the skies over Pakistan. Since Barack Obama was first sworn into office in January 2009, the country has launched hundreds of drone attacks in North and South Waziristan, killing thousands of Islamic militants in the process. In the most celebrated cases, drone strikes tracked and killed some of Al Qaeda’s most senior commanders, including the group’s number two official last June.
However, Pakistan’s tribal areas, a swath of hilly territory that was once seen as the world’s most active breeding ground for terrorism, is no longer the primary focus of American counterterrorism efforts. Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, and one awash in guns and terrorist related violence, now holds that title.
For the first time in America’s covert war on terrorists, there have been more drone attacks in Yemen than along Pakistan’s western frontier, a fact that demonstrates just how important the small Arabian Peninsula state has become to Al Qaeda’s existence as an organization.
According to the latest figures from the New America Foundation, Yemen was the witness to fifty-three drone strikes last year, compared to forty-six in Pakistan. The trend illustrates the shift all the more dramatically: whereas drone strikes in Pakistan decreased by nearly 64 percent in Pakistan, they almost tripled in Yemen.
In many ways, Yemen has proven to be a far more hospital environment for covert American operations than Pakistan. Pakistani officials have spoken out publicly against drone attacks on their territory on numerous occasions while the country’s diplomats often bring up the issue during bilateral talks with the United States.
The Yemeni government, by contrast, has been a willing partner and a vocal supporter of the use of targeted killing. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, who took over the office from Ali Abdullah Saleh in February of last year, sees drone technology as both a necessary and highly effective tactic against terrorists. And unlike in Pakistan, the United States have been able to execute attacks in Yemen with no restrictions as to where they take place.
Yet although drones are no doubt killing militants, critics point out that they are also having an adverse effect on America’s public image in much of the Yemeni countryside. Drone targeting has not been without its mistakes, one of which occurred on September 2 of last year when a missile slammed into a pickup truck in central Yemen that was thought to contain a group of Al Qaeda fighters. The information was wrong and twelve civilians died instead, raising the ire of locals who threatened to take the bodies to the president’s doorstep in protest. It took the Yemeni government months to acknowledge the mistake, adding insult to injury for many of the victims and their families.
Combating terrorism in Yemen will likely remain a priority for the United States in 2013. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been marked as the most active affiliate of the broader Islamist movement and Yemen’s weak central government needs all the help it can get in keeping terrorists on the run. Yet with every success in the drone war, it is all but assured that the Obama Administration will continue to make mistakes along the way. How quickly the administration fixes those mistakes, and whether it introduces more transparency into the drone program, may determine how long Al Qaeda can use such targeted killings to its recruitment advantage.