Photo: Flickr/AN HONORABLE GERMAN
President Barack Obama’s escalation of covert war in Yemen is leading to untold civilian casualties and increased support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), according to multiple reports.Attacks on AQAP have become more frequent after former vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took over for Ali Abdullah Saleh in February.
The U.S.-backed Hadi has been much more willing to allow Americans to work directly with Yemeni military forces outside of the capital of Sanaa.
The Yemeni army receives arms, training and intelligence from the U.S. while the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command carry out drone and air strikes — with as many as 21 missile attacks since January — that target suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen.
But numerous civilian casualties go unreported as Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times revealed that President Obama personally oversees the drone “kill list” and considers “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” (with no mention of women and children).
The story notes that this counting method “may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths” and the pervasive media reports of drones killing “suspected militants” without addressing the unintended consequences of the bombings.
Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism notes that retired admiral Dennis Blair, the former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told the New York Times that the drone campaign is “politically advantageous” but any “damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
The drone strikes have been more effective than the weak and divided Yemeni army, but the death of civilians and AQAP retaliation — such as the May 21 suicide bombing by a Yemeni solider in the middle of an army battalion that killed 96 and wounded about 300 — is causing an indignant fervor in the region.
Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post reports — after interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen — that “unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.”
Raghavan notes that since Barack Obama ordered the first air strike in Yemen in 2009, the number of core AQAP members in Yemen have more than doubled from 300 to at least 700.
Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University told the BCC that the number is closer to 1,000 and the “more the US bombs, the more they grow,” noting that al-Qaeda is adept at using the deaths of women and children to recruit people for revenge.
Iona Craig of the London Times reports that civilian casualties from drone strikes “have emboldened AQAP” and cites the reaction to the 2009 U.S. cruise missile attack on the village of al-Majala in Abyan that killed more than 40 civilians (including 21 children):
“That one bombing radicalized the entire area,” Abdul Gh ani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, said. “All the men and boys from those families and tribes will have joined [al-Qaeda] to fight.”
As The Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad presents in a new PBS Frontline investigation, al-Qaeda controls large swaths of southern Yemen and has implemented Sharia law in cities like Ja’ar (where the Yemeni army is currently heading).
One AQAP leader told Abdul-Ahad that the biggest threat for al-Qaeda is not the U.S. or Yemeni army but instead the tribes in south Yemen and that AQAP wants to make sure to avoid the same mistakes that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) made when they initiated a full-blown civil war (i.e. compelled the “Sunni Awakening”).
Meanwhile Yemen Central Security Force commander Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, told Abdul-Ahad that al-Qaeda has more followers, money, guns and territory then they did a year and a half ago.
All at a time when Yemen is facing a “catastrophic” food crisis, with at least 267,000 children facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition. Hunger has doubled since 2009, and the number of displaced civilians is about 500,000 and rising.
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