American drones alone can’t save Yemen from chaos

In this Saturday, April 4, 2015 file photo, Yemenis search for survivors in the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in a village near Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

When U.S. special operations forces exited Yemen last month, it was seen as a severe blow to the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which President Barack Obama had previously held up as a success in the global effort against terrorism. Nonetheless, the Obama administration promised it would still be able to target the al-Qaida affiliate that has repeatedly attempted attacks on U.S. soil. Last week, the government appeared to make good on its word.

On Tuesday, AQAP tweeted that one of the group’s spokesmen had been killed in a “crusader” air strike. U.S. officials told me Wednesday that a strike was indeed launched against the terrorist, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, and efforts were underway to confirm that he was dead.

Under normal circumstances, this kind of thing would be nothing special. Since 2011, the U.S. has launched more than 100 drone strikes against al-Qaida’s Yemen franchise, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. But it’s fairly remarkable given the setbacks the U.S. shadow war in Yemen has suffered since February, when Houthi rebels took the capital of Sana’a and Yemeni president Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi fled to the port of Aden. The United States also closed its embassy and the CIA station there that month. In March, the remaining 100 U.S. special operations forces left the country.

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Houthi militias that unseated Hadi are also enemies of AQAP. In late March, the U.S. began providing intelligence and logistics support to the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthis, thus working against the enemy of our enemy. Add to that, the U.S. is fighting on the same side in Iraq as the principle foreign sponsor of the Houthis, Iran. Without a partner government or U.S. personnel in the country, identifying targets for drone strikes is tough. Aki Peritz, a retired CIA counter-terrorism analyst told me, “It’s extremely difficult to do this when you don’t have people on the ground, especially in denied areas.” Denied areas are countries where U.S. forces would be targets of hostile forces. Think Iran or Taliban-controlled provinces in Afghanistan.

“You fall back on what is left of liaison in Yemen, you fall back on unilateral sources and you rely a lot on signals intelligence,” Peritz said, referring to things such as paid informants and intercepted phone calls and emails from terrorists dumb enough to still use electronic devices. “Maybe this individual made the wrong phone call at the wrong time,” he added, referring to Rubeish.

After the closure of the U.S. embassy in Yemen in February, Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “the coup in Yemen and the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a are particularly concerning because they will hinder the United States’ campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.”

To some extent, this is certainly true. But despite the setbacks, the U.S. drone war in Yemen has continued. According to the New America Foundation, air strikes were launched on Feb. 28 and March 2 in Shabwah Province. Then there was the strike this week against al-Rubeish.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official told me that the U.S. government can continue counter-terrorism operations in Yemen. But he stressed that the loss of Hadi, a counter-terrorism partner who had been in lockstep with U.S., was a problem.

So how does the U.S. do it? One answer is Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog posted overhead photos of what appeared to be a U.S.-operated drone base in the kingdom. The facility was first used in 2011 in the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen the U.S. government said helped recruit and inspire other Americans including Nidal Hassan, the U.S. army psychologist who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.

Another way for the U.S. to reach targets in Yemen is using vessels stationed in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Navy has several ships and submarines that can fire missiles on short notice. This approach was used in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, before the U.S. had developed the lethal drones it now favors. Finally, the U.S. has a base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, which hosts aircraft and special operations teams that can be flown over and into Yemen with short notice.

But none of these options address the most pressing issue in Yemen: intelligence. With U.S. forces gone and no partner security service, finding the senior AQAP leaders to target is a challenge. “Maybe we had a relationship with an anti-al-Qaida organization who put a beacon on his car,” Peritz said of the al-Rubaish strike.

Even though the drone war in Yemen continues, AQAP is thriving. Earlier this month it started freeing prisoners in Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city, a mirror image of Islamic State’s campaign in 2013 that freed hundreds of senior leaders in jailbreaks in Iraq. Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen now with the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau, warned Congress last week that the political chaos in the country only helps the al-Qaida affiliate.

The Houthis could potentially be the eyes and ears that Hadi’s forces once were for the U.S. government in Yemen. But they are now the targets of the Saudi-led coalition being aided by the U.S. So for now, Obama is fighting two wars in Yemen against two groups that should be fighting each other.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.