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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 former senior U.S. intelligence official said Qadhi's arrest for the 2008 embassy attack would not have been enough to put him on an assassination list. White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan has said that militants battling solely to overthrow the government in Sana are not targeted. But Qadhi's 1st Armored Division was certainly a threat to the Yemeni government and the country's stability.

Yemeni officials said the nation's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, approved the strike against Qadhi after determining that an attempt to arrest him in his neighborhood could have led to more deaths. The officials said they were unaware of intelligence linking Qadhi to any active plot.

The danger in the drone program is the potential for U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to be manipulated by Yemenis seeking to weaken the competing clans and political factions. For example, Obama and his top generals felt misled in 2010 when Obama signed off on an airstrike against a senior militant that killed six people, including the deputy governor of Mareb province. The strike was based entirely on intelligence provided by the Yemenis, who had not told the U.S. that the governor would be there, a former senior U.S. official said.

Since Hadi took office in February, the cooperation and trust between the Yemeni government and the U.S. has vastly improved, U.S. and Yemeni officials say.

There are many potential drone targets. For decades, young men have left Yemen to become foot soldiers and bomb makers among the militants in Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya. Some of them have come home.

One was Rashad Mohammed Saeed, who left at 15 and became a confidant of Osama bin Laden, fighting beside him in Afghanistan. He returned to Yemen around 2000 and in an interview said he had put aside his weapons to start the Renaissance Union Party, made up of former militants who run for parliament seats.

Like militants in other countries, he is struggling to reconcile a decades-long philosophy of violence and the more peaceful, and successful, political approach — at least in Tunisia and Egypt — of the protest movements that ignited the so-called Arab Spring. He worries about what many here describe as an incessant invisible buzz in the sky.

"We have entered politics. Do you think the U.S. will leave us alone to choose our own leaders and way of life?" Saeed asked. "Our party is close to Al Qaeda. We're trying to get them to lay down their weapons. Yemen doesn't need this violence now. We just need protection from drones. I may be a target myself."

Hadi, who took over when Saleh stepped aside amid international pressure, has praised the drone strikes as a key to defeating terrorists. That has upset tribal scions who see their internal problems as being exploited by American interests.

"The drones have not killed the real Al Qaeda leaders, but they have increased the hatred toward America and are causing young men to join Al Qaeda to retaliate," said Ahmed al Zurqua, an expert on Islamic militants. "President Hadi is distorting and violating Yemen's sovereignty by cooperating with the Americans."

The American attacks "are giving Al Qaeda immunity. The drones are killing innocent people," said Sheik Abdrabbo Qadhi, a member of the parliament and no relation to Adnan Qadhi. "Al Qaeda is telling Yemeni that they are fighting these infidels and they're telling our people that our state is helping the infidels."

The sheik, pistol at his side, clicked his cellphone and held up a text message that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had recently sent to lawmakers: "You members of the infidel parliament.... The swords of justice will behead all of you."

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"We want to uproot Al Qaeda," he said, "but we have to do it ourselves."

That has not happened, nor is it likely to.

The militants also face problems of their own making. In the spring of 2011, Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia exploited Yemen's political tumult, temporarily taking over towns and villages in Abyan province in the south. The militants assassinated security chiefs and enforced a Taliban-like Islamic law. Al Qaeda provided temporary electricity and other services, but its medieval system of justice by amputation and whipping quickly lost it support among the tribes.

"Abyan was really the graveyard of Al Qaeda. People saw what the militants really were," said Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, head of Central Security Forces. "Summary executions and chopping off of hands, this is not justice."

Yet "Al Qaeda is not finished," he said. "The war goes on. They have no central leadership. If they can flourish in a place, they will. Their ideology makes them strong. If one leader is killed, another one rises."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Al Sarrain and Dilanian from Washington. Special correspondent Zaid al-Alayaa in Sana contributed to this report.

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