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A view of a house in what security official said was destroyed by a U.S. drone in Yemen's eastern province of Hadramout

Among the Arab Spring uprisings of last year, only the one in Yemen produced a negotiated regime change.  The conflict in Syria has entered its 19th month. Some uprising have produces some change; others less. Autocrats in three countries chose exile, were jailed or killed, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen agreed to leave office early in exchange for immunity from prosecution for the deaths of several hundred Yemeni protesters. Saleh’s vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi took over in February as a transitional president for a two-year term.

The transition in Yemen was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, with strong U.S. backing.  One of the U. S. administration’s immediate goals in this transition was the creation of a stable central government in Sana’a, one that would cooperate with Washington in continued efforts to shut down al-Qaida operations in Yemen.

Hadi has been a consensual partner in the U.S. use of Predator and Reaper drones to eradicate terrorist cells, says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University who has lived in and traveled back and forth to Yemen for a decade, and is publishing a book on the subject, “The Last Refuge: Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.”  Johnsen estimates that while a joint U.S.-Yemeni campaign has driven al-Qaida out of two southern Yemeni cities, the terror group’s membership has grown from about 300 to more than 1,000 members.

Johnsen spoke with VOA senior reporter David Arnold about Hadi’s role in the anti-terrorism campaign and the domestic risks it could create for Yemen’s two-year political transition. Here are some highlights of Johnsen’s remarks. Check the sound file below for a fuller version of the interview.

Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen (W.W. Norton)

Gregory Johnsen (photo credit Jeff Taylor)

Hadi-U.S. interdependence

What’s happened though is since Saleh was forced out when the Obama administration eventually made the decision that they could no longer support him – that they had to support this immunity deal to get him out of power – what’s happened is that President Hadi has been much more vocal, has been much more willing to do what it is that the U.S. wants. And I think the reason for this is that President Hadi came to power with such a weak domestic base of support that he was completely dependent upon the U.S. and upon the international community.

Drone strike totals hard to track

… the Yemeni government often takes credit for the drone strikes even when it was, in fact, a U.S. missile. So, often the Yemeni government will actually say, ‘Well, that was actually a Yemeni air force raid and not, in fact, a U.S. drone strike or a U.S. military strike. And, so, this has made it difficult for a lot of organizations to keep track of what’s happening and that’s also, in combination with the fact that many of these strikes take place in areas where they are far from Sana’a, in areas that are down in Abyan and Shabwa in the southern part of Yemen, where it is very difficult to get access. I think the estimates range from about 30, 35 drone strikes this year since President Hadi took office  all the way up to 50 or 60.

Al-Qaida in Yemen are local tribesmen

The larger problem with drone strikes in Yemen (is) … the drone strikes are dependent upon intelligence on the ground and that intelligence on the ground is often far from perfect, which means that the drone strikes sometimes kill the wrong people. And so you have drone strikes that kill innocent civilians.  This is a serious problem within Yemen. … the vast majority of the members of al-Qaida are Yemenis themselves, which means that … unlike, say, al-Qaida in Afghanistan, where they were Arabs within a non-Arab country, here you have Yemeni members of al-Qaida within Yemen itself.

Collateral damage as a serious problem

… the U.S. may see them as a member of al-Qaida and see them only as a member of al-Qaida but in Yemen they also have tribal identities, they have families and so forth. And so, the U.S. might carry out a strike on one of these meetings or on a car carrying these individuals and maybe it kills one member of al-Qaida, but he may be sitting with three other tribesmen and all of a sudden you have tribesmen who are very upset that the U.S. has killed some people who are members of their tribe, and then you see more individuals coming into the arms of al-Qaida.

Click to listen to more of the Gregory Johnsen interview (6:17)

David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.

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