These multiple and simultaneous identities, along with the ability of Yemeni AQAP members to move throughout their country, make tracking and targeting them a logistical nightmare. It is hard to tell who is al Qaeda and who isn't from several thousand feet.
Yes, some strikes have been spectacular successes, a perfect blending of intelligence and technology to hit the intended target. Two years ago, in September 2011, the United States killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen the United States believed to be the head of AQAP's external operations unit. This year a U.S. drone took out Said al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee and the deputy commander of AQAP. But for all the high-profile successes trumpeted by the White House, there have also been tragic failures -- drone strikes that went wrong and killed women and children or tribesmen who had no connection to al Qaeda. And even the successes may breed more militants.
Further compounding the problem is the U.S. insistence on focusing on personalities instead of the broader network. This is what CIA officials refer to as "mowing the lawn" of terrorism, but it comes at the expense of not attacking the root system.
The history of the United States in Yemen is littered with exactly this type of mistake. When Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP's military head and probably the organization's single most dangerous member, escaped from prison in 2006, the United States paid them little attention, focusing instead on the two terrorists it knew at the time: Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna, both of whom later surrendered themselves. Wuhayshi and Raymi, meanwhile, went on to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen and eventually to transform that tattered band of survivors into the AQAP we know today.
More recently the United States focused on Awlaki. Then came bomb-maker Asiri's moment in the sun, which hasn't quite ended yet. And now we're starting to learn about Wuhayshi, a man Osama bin Laden groomed for leadership during what amounted to a four-year mentorship in the late 1990s.
To some extent this focus on personalities is understandable. Like the old wanted posters former President George W. Bush was so fond of, the United States knows when it has defeated an individual: There is a smoking crater and al Qaeda releases a eulogy. But while the United States is scratching names off its most-wanted list, AQAP the organization continues to grow and it continues to prove itself capable of projecting the type of power that sends the United States into panic mode.
The Obama administration's counterterrorism approach in Yemen is primarily concerned with preventing an immediate attack directed at America or its interests in the Middle East. This is a short-term goal that eclipses everything else, from long-term strategy to the stability of Yemen itself. The United States has yet to realize that this is not a war it can win on its own. Only the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen are in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.
The United States can do a lot of good in Yemen, but it can also do a lot of harm. And right now it is playing a dangerous game, firing missiles at targets in the hopes that it can kill enough men to keep AQAP from plotting, planning, and launching an attack from Yemen. After this terrorism alert that has sent America's entire diplomatic and intelligence operatives in nearly two dozen countries scrambling, it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that's more sustainable -- and more sensible too.