An undated handout picture by the US Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft in flight at an undiclosed location. (EPA Photo/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)

Commentary: Drones Keep Obama's Yemen War Alive


APRIL 17, 2015

When US special operations forces exited Yemen last month, it was seen as a severe blow to the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, 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 Qaeda affiliate that has repeatedly attempted attacks on US soil. This 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" airstrike. US 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 US has launched more than 100 drone strikes against Al Qaeda's Yemen franchise, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. But it's fairly remarkable given the setbacks the US shadow war in Yemen has suffered since February, when Houthi rebels took the capital of Sanaa and Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi fled to the port of Aden. The US also closed its embassy and the CIA station there that month. In March, the remaining 100 US 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 US 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 US is fighting on the same side in Iraq as the principle foreign sponsor of the Houthis, Iran.

Without a partner government or US 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 US 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 e-mails 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 US embassy in Yemen in February, Representative 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 Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

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

A US counter-terrorism official told me that the US 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 US, was a problem.

So how does the US do it? One answer is Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Wired magazine's Danger Room blog posted overhead photos of what appeared to be a US-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 US government said helped recruit and inspire other Americans including Nidal Hassan, the US army psychologist who murdered 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, in 2009.

Another way for the US 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 US had developed the lethal drones it now favors. Finally, the US 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 US 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 Qaeda 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 US ambassador to Yemen now with the State Department's Near East Affairs bureau, warned Congress this week that the political chaos in the country only helps the Qaeda affiliate. "Although the Houthis and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are each other’s sworn enemies, the destabilizing actions of the Houthis and their allies have created conditions that are beneficial to AQAP, which already has a significant presence in Yemen," he said.

The Houthis could potentially be the eyes and ears that Hadi's forces once were for the US government in Yemen. But they are now the targets of the Saudi-led coalition being aided by the US. 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 who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.

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