The past several months have opened a window onto the emerging US counterterrorism approach post-Saleh. When the political crisis began to deepen in Yemen late last year, the Obama administration decided to pull out most of the US military personnel in Yemen, including those training Yemen's counterterrorism forces. "They have left because of the security situation," Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Saleh's foreign minister, told me at his office in Sanaa. "Certainly, I think if they do not return and the counterterrorism units are not provided with the necessary ammunition and equipment, it will have an impact" on counterterrorism operations. Now the United States is doubling down on its use of air power and drones, which are swiftly becoming the primary focus of Washington's counterterrorism operations.
By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen. While the United States is largely absent on the ground now in Yemen, it continues coordination with Yemeni intelligence on counterterrorism operations. In late January the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Abyan, and, according to Sumali, US forces conducted at least two other strikes around Zinjibar that "targeted Al Qaeda leaders who are on the US terrorist black list," though he adds, "I did not coordinate directly in these attacks." According to Sumali, US helicopters have — on several occasions — flown in supplies for the 25th Mechanized. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in Abyan. "It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence," Sumali says. "Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes."
For years, the elite Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA had teams deployed inside Yemen that supported Yemeni forces and conducted unilateral operations, consisting mostly of cruise missile and drone attacks. Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians — at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama's first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and Saleh's government. "I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor," Qahtan charges. "The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money."
The October drone strike that killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. "I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy," says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes "have recruited thousands." Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, "which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge." Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. "People certainly resent these [US] interventions," Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.
Such resentments mingle easily with the political and religious message of Al Qaeda and with the growing radicalization of the religious landscape, particularly in impoverished areas neglected by the Yemeni government, like Abyan. "Of course, when people are in that kind of circumstance then they need to hold on to some kind of ideological banner, so they start talking about the Caliphate and all that stuff," says Iryani. At large rallies held by opponents of Saleh's regime in Sanaa, prominent conservative imams deliver stinging sermons denouncing the United States and Israel. The United States may see AQAP as a membership organization with a finite number of members who can be taken out through a drone- and Tomahawk missile–fueled war of attrition, but there are varying shades of support and involvement among broader segments of Yemeni society. While there are certainly some foreign operatives in AQAP, the majority of those described as "militants" are Yemenis who belong to powerful tribes. "In recent months, Ansar al Sharia appears to have attracted a number of new members," says Johnsen, the Yemen scholar at Princeton. "The group has essentially attempted to flatten itself out in Yemen in order to appeal to as many people as possible, which means that it takes the popular parts of AQAP's platform, while downplaying the more controversial sections."
While General Sumali talks of the need to "cleanse" Abyan of the "terrorists," it is hardly that simple. The US bombs and the Yemeni military shelling of Zinjibar have increased support for Ansar al Sharia, allowing it to fulfill its claim that it is a defender of the people in the face of an onslaught backed by America. The attacks also serve as hard evidence that, as Awlaki and the leaders of AQAP alleged, the United States intends to target Yemen as it has Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. "I wish to send a message to my brothers and the honorable people of Abyan," declared Abu Hamza al Murqoshi, the emir of Ansar al Sharia, in a videotaped "Message to Abyan" posted in late January. "The entire world has united against us with this treacherous government, which has demolished your homes and destroyed the infrastructure. You have joined the fight against this state and its allies, the Americans."
The key to accomplishing anything in Yemen is navigating its labyrinthine tribal system. For years, a tribal patronage network helped bolster Saleh's regime. Many tribes have had a neutral view of AQAP or have seen it as a minor nuisance; some have fought against Al Qaeda forces, while others have given them safe haven or shelter. The stance of many tribes toward Al Qaeda has depended on how they believe AQAP can forward their agenda.
But US policy has enraged tribal leaders who could potentially keep AQAP in check and has, over the past three years of regular bombings, taken away the motivation for many leaders to do so. Several southern leaders angrily told me stories of US and Yemeni attacks in their areas that killed civilians and livestock and destroyed or damaged scores of homes. If anything, the US airstrikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units has increased tribal sympathy for Al Qaeda. "Why should we fight them? Why?" asks Sheik Ali Abdullah Abdulsalam, a southern tribal sheik from Shebwa who adopted the nom du guerre Mullah Zabara, he says, out of admiration for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. "If my government built schools, hospitals and roads and met basic needs, I would be loyal to my government and protect it. So far, we don't have basic services such as electricity, water pumps. Why should we fight Al Qaeda?" He says that AQAP controls large swaths of Shebwa, conceding that the group does "provide security and prevent looting. If your car is stolen, they will get it back for you." In areas "controlled by the government, there is looting and robbery. You can see the difference." Zabara adds, "If we don't pay more attention, Al Qaeda could seize and control more areas."