A botched drone strike in Yemen shows how America's anti-al Qaeda strategy has gone off the rails.
SANAA, Yemen — On Dec. 12, near sunset, a convoy of vehicles carrying armed tribesmen that was part of a wedding procession was destroyed in an apparent U.S. drone strike. The attack, which occurred in Yemen's central al-Baydah province, was far from the first American strike in the area -- the United States is estimated to have carried out at least a dozen strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets in the province since the start of 2012. It was, however, the first time one of the strikes had made the grievous mistake of hitting a wedding.
The initial reports left me incredulous. As I started to make calls to sources in the area, it became clear the strike hit four cars in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles, killing at least a dozen people and wounding many more. The casualties were identified as members of local tribes. The information I received, as usual after such an event, was sometimes contradictory: While some sources stressed that those killed were all civilians, others seemed just as confident that some were indeed militants.
Whatever happened on Dec. 12, it was not a "targeted killing" -- the language President Barack Obama's administration often uses to describe drone strikes -- nor was it consistent with the White House's claim that the strikes are only carried out when civilians will not be caught in the crossfire. It's not just a matter of the morality of the drone program: The confirmed deaths of noncombatants in this strike will set back anti-al Qaeda efforts everywhere in Yemen, and its effects will only be exacerbated by the restive area where it occurred.
The strike was followed, as always, by silence from WashingtonThe drone strike was followed, as always, by silence from Washington., which has acknowledged carrying out drone strikes in Yemen but never publicly comments on individual attacks. The Yemeni government, however, released a statement the following day that said the strike targeted al Qaeda militants, but neglected to mention either the country that carried out the attack or the apparent civilian casualties. The actions taking place behind the scenes, though, painted a vastly different picture: Al-Baydah's governor was dispatched to mediate between the government and the families of the dead, while Yemeni officials that were previously supportive of the drone strikes cast the attack as a tragic error.
"Drones have saved lives, but they've also taken innocent lives," one official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. "And this strike personally shook me."
The exact nature of the error is still a matter of speculation. It was hard not to wonder if the wedding convoy was mistaken for something more sinister -- that someone in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community concluded that vehicles carrying heavily armed wedding guests were actually an al Qaeda convoy. Some tribal contacts said that there were high-ranking militants near the site of the strike, and a Yemeni official briefed on security matters told me a vehicle hit in the attack had been linked to a prominent local al Qaeda leader. Either way, any "suspected militants" present were surrounded by civilian bystanders.
In many ways, the northwest corner of al-Baydah province is an unlikely place for al Qaeda militants to carve out a base. Tensions with the central government are far from new, but the locals' ideology has historically taken a far different form: The area was a hotbed for leftist insurgents in the late 1970s and its residents are still over-represented in the ranks of Yemen's Socialist Party.
Looking back, the chain of events that transformed the area into a notorious "al Qaeda hotbed" seems almost like a perfect storm. In January 2011, militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula led by Sheikh Tareq al-Dahab, a local tribal leader, took advantage of the government's weakness and seized control of the town of Rada', near where last week's drone strike occurred. While the fighters pulled out little more than a week later and their sheikh was killed in a longstanding family feud the following month, al Qaeda's presence in the area remained. The fighters have maintained their presence in and around Sheikh Tareq's hometown of al-Manaseh, expanding to other parts of the province and capitalizing on the central government's virtual absence.
Most importantly, perhaps, the group has had far more success in infiltrating local tribes in the area than they've had in other parts of the country. Al Qaeda has capitalized on their ties with a faction of the Dahab family -- which locals tend to see as sheikhs first and militant leaders second -- appearing to take great pains to avoid tensions with other tribesmen while exploiting widespread unemployment and anti-government sentiment to gain recruits.
The group's supporters still appear to constitute a fraction of those in the area. But even if locals lament the current status quo, few want to see a devastating conflict similar to the 2012 offensive that pushed al Qaeda-affiliated fighters out of their former strongholds in Yemen's southern Abyan province. And even those who deeply resent the terror network's presence appear to lack the will to directly confront the group.
"The government tells us to turn in al Qaeda fighters," one tribesman hailing from near the site of Thursday's strike mused. "But how can we do that when there's no government present to turn them into? And why would we do it when there's no government present to protect us from retaliation?"
It's going to take more than drone strikes to eliminate al Qaeda from its strongholds in this Yemeni province. The militants killed, locals say, are largely replaceable, while the tens of civilians killed over the past two years has only heightened distrust of the central government among noncombatants, pushing some young men into al Qaeda's arms. However, the long-term solution to combatting the militants' presence -- ameliorating pervasive poverty and underdevelopment -- is far easier said than done.
Either way, in the aftermath of Thursday's strike, the possibility of defeating al Qaeda in al-Baydah feels further away than ever.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images