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U.S. drone strategy in Yemen is fraught with peril

Sorting out the guises, tribal intrigue and cross-allegiances in the Arab nation is a huge challenge for Washington in its effort to assassinate terrorists.

December 25, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times
  • A painting of the black flag brandished by the militant group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula marks the wall of Adnan Qadhi's house in the Yemeni village of Beit al Ahmar. Qadhi was killed by a U.S. drone strike in November.
A painting of the black flag brandished by the militant group Al Qaeda in… (Adam Baron / McClatchy-Tribune )

AL SARRAIN, Yemen — The U.S. drone flew over a cluster of mud houses on a ridge and, according to Yemeni officials, locked onto Adnan Qadhi, a mercurial man of many guises, including radical militant, peace mediator, preacher of violence and army general.

Villagers said Qadhi climbed out of his utility vehicle the night of Nov. 7 to make a cellphone call shortly before the missile struck. His photo — broad face peering from beneath a tilted red beret, stars on his epaulets — now hangs in a small grocery store in a land where farmers work narrow fields below the villas of politicians, tribal leaders and a former president that rise like fortresses on nearby hilltops.

Some here call him a martyr, others a fanatic. But the life and death of Qadhi, a senior officer in the 1st Armored Division who preached holy war in mosques and donned government-issued fatigues, epitomizes the political instability, tribal intrigue, crisscrossing allegiances and radical Islamist passions the United States must sort out when targeting militants in Yemen. At times, Washington risks being drawn into internal conflicts and becoming increasingly despised in the Arab world's poorest nation.

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Extremists here have a history of shifting tactics and circumstances. They were pressed into service by the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh when needed, then arrested and jailed when the political winds changed. Later they vanished from prisons by the scores, set loose across tribal lands. Yemeni security officials say that era is ending, and they're stepping up military offensives to rout extremists — fighters from Libya, Somalia and other nations, and assassins on motorcycles intent on killing intelligence officials.

At the same time, the Obama administration has intensified airstrikes against the Yemeni group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which plotted in 2009 and 2010 to blow up American airliners. A 2011 drone attack killed Anwar Awlaki, an American-born Muslim preacher and militant recruiter. Weeks later, a U.S. airstrike killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who tribesmen and relatives say had no links to terrorism.

The Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. drone activity, reports that since 2002, America has launched 57 airstrikes in Yemen, killing 299 militants and 82 civilians. The number of strikes has risen dramatically from four in 2010 to 40 so far this year.

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"Why do these Americans come and interfere in Yemen?" said Radhwan Dahrooj, the grocer in Al Sarrain. "Why do they kill our people? If they have charges against someone why do they not arrest him and bring him to justice?"

Qadhi was sentenced to prison four years ago for plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sana, the capital, that killed at least 16 people, no Americans among them. With the help of clansmen and army officials, he was released shortly afterward and resumed his old life: militant and officer in the 1st Armored Division, led by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar, a commander described in a 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable as "dealing with terrorists and extremists."

When uprisings against President Saleh swept the country in 2011, the brigade mutinied and battled with competing tribes and security units for control of Sana.

What began as a peaceful revolution against Saleh tipped the nation — already fighting a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south — into deeper turmoil. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its affiliate Ansar al Sharia exploited the unrest, taking over territory in the south. That gave Qadhi an opportunity to expand his militant ambitions even as he slipped into another of his guises, currying favor with the government by mediating a truce between Yemeni officials and an Al Qaeda faction.

The U.S., which this year has given Yemen $337 million in military and security aid, would not confirm that a drone targeted Qadhi. Yemeni officials and villagers, who heard a plane circling that night, said a U.S. airstrike killed him not far from his home in Beit al Ahmar. Though Qadhi was an active Al Qaeda recruiter and often accused Washington in his sermons of wanting to keep Yemen divided and in chaos, it is not clear what specific danger he was seen as presenting to the United States.

Washington has no precise rules on the criteria for targeting militants with drone strikes. But President Obama has said that an extremist must present an imminent threat to the U.S. or its allies, as Yemen's Al Qaeda branch is considered to do, and that arrest would be impossible.

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