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Blowback: In Yemen, US Drone Attacks Backfiring

Obama's covert war has brought 'a marked radicalization of the local population'

Common Dreams staff

Protesters in Sanaa, Yemen, during a May 29, 2012 march marking an attack last year by security forces on an anti-government camp in the southern city of Taiz. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

New reports suggest that the growing US drone war in Yemen may be backfiring -- inspiring a new generation of enemies of the US and strengthinging Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The Obama administration's spreading covert war in Yemen has brought ”a marked radicalization of the local population” and is “driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States,” according to a report in today's Washington Post.

And in last night's PBS Frontline show Al Qaeda in Yemen, correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad went deep inside the country’s heartland to investigate Al Qaeda’s rapid rise in Yemen, and its efforts to win over the local population.

Journalist Michelle Shephard, who has covered the war in Yemen, told Frontline: "If the use of ‘signature [strikes]‘ – those that target regions instead of individuals – erroneously kill tribal leaders, women or children, the blowback is an increase in anti-U.S. sentiment of which AQAP will deftly capitalize.”

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, The Nation magazine's national security correspondent, testified in December 2010 before the US House Judiciary Committee on the US's shadow wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere:

As the war rages on in Afghanistan and--despite spin to the contrary--in Iraq as well, US Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency are engaged in parallel, covert, shadow wars that are waged in near total darkness and largely away from effective or meaningful Congressional oversight or journalistic scrutiny. The actions and consequences of these wars is seldom discussed in public or investigated by the Congress.

The current US strategy can be summed up as follows: We are trying to kill our way to peace. And the killing fields are growing in number.


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Among the sober question that must be addressed by the Congress: What impact are these clandestine operations having on US national security? Are they making us more safe or less? When US forces kill innocent civilians in "counterterrorism" operations, are we inspiring a new generation of insurgents to rise against our country? And, what is the oversight role of the US Congress in the shadow wars that have spanned the Bush and Obama Administrations?

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The Washington Post reports:

Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.

"If the use of ‘signature [strikes]‘ – those that target regions instead of individuals – erroneously kill tribal leaders, women or children, the blowback is an increase in anti-U.S. sentiment of which AQAP will deftly capitalize.”After recent U.S. missile strikes, mostly from unmanned aircraft, the Yemeni government and the United States have reported that the attacks killed only suspected al-Qaeda members. But civilians have also died in the attacks, said tribal leaders, victims’ relatives and human rights activists.

“These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’ ” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March. [...]

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

“The drone strikes have not helped either the United States or Yemen,” said Sultan al-Barakani, who was a top adviser to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Yemen is paying a heavy price, losing its sons. But the Americans are not paying the same price.”

In 2009, when President Obama was first known to have authorized a missile strike on Yemen, U.S. officials said there were no more than 300 core AQAP members. That number has grown in recent years to 700 or more, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say. In addition, hundreds of tribesmen have joined AQAP in the fight against the U.S.-backed Yemeni government.

On their Web sites, on their Facebook pages and in their videos, militants who had been focused on their fight against the Yemeni government now portray the war in the south as a jihad against the United States, which could attract more recruits and financing from across the Muslim world. Yemeni tribal Web sites are filled with al-Qaeda propaganda, including some that brag about killing Americans.

“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people"“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.” [...]

In some cases, U.S. strikes have forced civilians to flee their homes and have destroyed homes and farmland. Balweed Muhammed Nasser Awad, 57, said he and his family fled the city of Jaar last summer after his son, a fisherman, was killed in a U.S. strike targeting suspected al-Qaeda militants. Today, they live in a classroom in an Aden school, along with hundreds of other refugees from the conflict.

“Ansar al-Sharia had nothing to do with my son’s death. He was killed by the Americans,” Awad said. “He had nothing to do with terrorism. Why him?”

No Yemeni has forgotten the U.S. cruise missile strike in the remote tribal region of al-Majala on Dec. 17, 2009 — the Obama administration’s first known missile strike inside Yemen. The attack killed dozens, including 14 women and 21 children, and whipped up rage at the United States.

Today, the area is a haven for militants, said Abdelaziz Muhammed Hamza, head of the Revolutionary Council in Abyan province, a group that is fighting AQAP. “All the residents of the area have joined al-Qaeda,” he said.

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