US War on Yemen: More Than Just Drones

By: Joe Dyke, Benjamin Redd

Published Thursday, August 16, 2012

The use of American drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past decade has been well documented, but in the last 18 months the US has quietly opened up another front in its so-called Drone War.

The first use of US drones in Yemen was allegedly back in 2002, but since the Spring of 2011 the number of attacks has risen greatly.

Story: US War on Yemen: Invisible Casualties by Atiaf Alwazir

Photo Blog: US War on Yemen: The View From the Ground by Atiaf Alwazir

This interactive map and graph, using data provided to Al-Akhbar by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, shows the scale and location of all known bombings in the country since November 2009.

The figures include 100 attacks, including drone strikes, airstrikes and cruise missile strikes with at least 641 people killed.

Not all strikes are confirmed, partly because the Yemeni government is known to claim US attacks to avoid criticism. Chris Woods, head of the Bureau’s covert wars investigation teams, explained that being certain of the perpetrators is difficult in a country where free media has been partly suppressed and where attacks have increased rapidly.

“The problems we have had is attributing...It’s not that civilians weren’t killed or the attack didn’t happen but that we can’t be sure who carried it out,” he said. “It could have been a US drone – if it was it may have been a Pentagon drone or a CIA drone - or it may have been an airstrike by Yemen or the US. Attribution has been a real problem for us, but there is no doubt the attacks are happening.”

The map reveals that the majority of attacks are focused heavily on the southern region of the country, where Ansar al-Sharia rebels - a group nebulously affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - have taken control of large swathes of territory. It is worth noting that while the Yemeni government has also partially lost control of the north of Yemen to the insurgent Houthis, the map shows that US drones have not been used heavily in that region, which borders key US regional ally Saudi Arabia.

The data shows a huge spike in attacks that began shortly after last February, when, spurred on by the downfall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Yemeni capital Sanaa to call for democracy.

It appears that those protests set in motion a series of events that would bring one non-state actor, AQAP, and one foreign entity, the United States, deeper into the country’s politics.

Jomana Farhat, a journalist who has written about the drone war for Al-Akhbar, said that when the uprising happened battalions from the country’s security and anti-terrorism forces were pulled out of the South and returned to Sanaa, leaving a power vacuum in the region.

“The plan was that the US would train those units to fight al-Qaeda in South Yemen but when the uprising reached Yemen they started fighting protesters. So no one was left fighting al-Qaeda,” she said.

Woods said the rebels saw this opportunity and changed tactics, in a move which alarmed the US. “What is key to why the drone strikes started in Spring 2011 is because al-Qaeda and its allies began seizing territory in Yemen. Al-Qaeda has never really focused on territory; it has focused on terrorism. But for the first time in Yemen we saw them seizing control of towns, making claims to geographic areas,” he said. “That presented a profound threat to the United States, particularly in the context of Yemen and the Arab rebellion. That’s why we see the drone strikes.“

The number of attacks shot up further earlier this year as the Yemeni army carried out a sustained assault that forced al-Qaeda out of a number of towns. Shortly after the spike, reports surfaced that the CIA and US military had requested, and were granted, authority to strike targets in Yemen even when the identity of those targeted was not known. This resulted in the further intensification of the US’s drone war in Yemen.

The surge in attacks across the south coincided with Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure from the presidency, and his succession by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who commands a far smaller base of support. Since Hadi assumed power in late February 2012, the government has admitted it requested that the US use drones “in some cases.”

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