U.S. Ramps Up Drone Strikes In Yemen

Aug 8, 2013
Originally published on August 8, 2013 5:39 pm

A U.S. drone strike killed at least six alleged militants in Yemen today.

It’s the sixth such strike in the past 10 days and it seems to be part of the response to a recent terrorist threat against the West.

This period of increased drone strikes follows a period when there hadn’t been any, and raises questions about where the drone strategy stands at this point.


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There were two more suspected U.S. drone strikes today in Yemen. At least nine al-Qaida militants were killed in the latest attacks. There have been seven in the last 10 days. The attacks follow a two-month stretch in which there were no drone strikes in the Arabian Peninsula, and they appear to be in direct response to the recent terrorist threat.

Ken Dilanian covers national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He's with us now from NPR in Washington. And Ken, what is it that the U.S. is going after right now with these drone strikes in Yemen?

KEN DILANIAN: That's a great question, and I don't know the full answer, but we can see from the evidence that they are hitting vehicles with males who are presumed militants, sources in Yemen are saying they're militants, but they're not hitting the super-high-value targets, the leaders of the organization. The government of Yemen put out a list of 25 of the top AQAP operatives that they would like to arrest.

HOBSON: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

DILANIAN: Exactly. There may have been one of those guys killed in these recent strikes, but mostly it's lower-level people, which has been an issue of criticism about the strikes.

HOBSON: And they happen, it seems, this week, on a daily basis and typically in the middle of the night, right?

DILANIAN: Yes, and this comes after President Obama gave a speech in which he said it may be time to dial back on these kinds of - on this war footing against terrorism and on the pace of drone strikes, and the pace did in fact diminish. And there's a whole playbook that the administration approved about putting in place rules about when the strikes could take place. But there's an exception for when there's an imminent threat, and this is one of those cases, apparently.

HOBSON: Now the threat just came up a week ago, at least it was just made public a week ago, but the strikes happened also immediately. So it seems as if the U.S. was prepared for what they're doing right now in Yemen.

DILANIAN: Right, the drone strike architecture brings with it a whole intelligence apparatus. So there are human sources on the ground, there's a lot of technical intelligence collection so that they are always in a position - they call them strike packages. There are proposed strike packages pending all the time. And the question is do they get approved or not. And so presumably there were some on the table already.

And they may also be doing what are known as signature strikes, which is they analyze patterns of life. They have places where they know militants congregate, and they look and see are these guys militants, do they fit the pattern. We may now know exactly their names, but we're convinced that these are al-Qaida operatives, and we're going to strike.

HOBSON: And why use the drones as opposed to Special Forces or people on the ground as would have been done in the past? Is it just about minimizing risk to U.S. forces?

DILANIAN: That's part of it, but there would also be a political backlash if there were U.S. Special Forces raids in Yemen. The Yemenis are not interested in having that happen. The government of Yemen has been very supportive of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. They've actually backed the drone attacks. President Hadi came to Washington and expressed support for the drone attacks. But the people of Yemen, the perception is anyway, that they do not want to see U.S. boots on the ground.

HOBSON: And we've heard this week, the website Global Post has a story about Yemenis saying they are learning to hate the sky because of all these drone strikes. So the question comes up whether these are doing more harm than good. They're causing people to sympathize with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

DILANIAN: Right, that is a continual debate with these strikes, and you hear people talk eloquently on both sides of this. I mean there are scholars of Yemen who insist, and people who travel to Yemen regularly, that the policy has been counterproductive because just what you described. That for every terrorist you kill, you make dozens of enemies because these al-Qaida operatives are also Yemeni tribesmen with relatives and friends.

And in many cases the relatives and friends aren't aware that they're active in al-Qaida. So they just know that the guy was killed by an American drone strike. Now, the U.S. government has said they don't see that the drone strikes are driving people in the hands of al-Qaida. In fact, they say they see support for strikes in villages where people know there are terrorists, and then they are wiped out, so people are happy about that.

But it's a balancing test. Clearly, you know, there's some strategic advantage to eliminating people who are plotting against the U.S., but then they have to weigh what the backlash is.

HOBSON: And square what we're seeing this week with what we heard from Secretary of State John Kerry in Pakistan, that he hopes the U.S. drone program will end very soon. Was he talking about Pakistan specifically, or was he talking about all of this?

DILANIAN: Well, he was talking about Pakistan specifically, and his spokesperson quickly rolled that back. So he may have been speaking a little off the cuff and after a meeting with the Pakistanis, who are vehemently opposed to, or at least say publicly they are vehemently opposed to the strikes.

And the strikes have been diminishing in Pakistan to a great degree. But the U.S. does not want to abandon that tool because, again, the tribal areas of Pakistan are a place where the American government does not want to send troops in, except in extreme circumstances like the bin Laden raid, and so they want to retain the ability to strike in a place where the government of Pakistan does not really have control and in a place where militants are plotting against the U.S.

HOBSON: So Ken Dilanian, do you see any signs at this point that the U.S. is preparing to ramp down its drone strikes? It seems completely the opposite.

DILANIAN: By the numbers, they've ramped down considerably. But what this last two-week period shows is that they're perfectly willing to ramp up situationally, when there's an imminent or perceived threat in a particular country. And so what I think that shows is that this tool is not going to be put on the shelf entirely.

There'll be that apparatus, that intelligence collection apparatus, of strike packages sitting on the shelf. You may see less strikes, but the program is not going away.

HOBSON: Ken Dilanian covers national security for The Los Angeles Times. Ken, thanks so much for joining us.

DILANIAN: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: And up next we're going to talk about Yemen, its history, its economy, its people. The country is running out of oil, and there are concerns about water resources, as well. We'll hear about all of it after a break, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.