A debate on the Obama Administration’s controversial use of drones in the War on Terror has been raging in the U.S. media for months and involves a number of questions such as the legality of drone strikes, the question of civilian casualties and the technology’s effectiveness in the fight against terrorism.
In the most recent turn of events in this ongoing saga, on July 18, 2012, two American civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for killing three American citizens in two covert drone strikes last year in Yemen. One of these deaths, that of 16-year-old U.S.-born Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, has caused the most outrage among both the American and Yemeni public.
According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, between 2001 and 2012 approximately 58-149 civilians and 24-31 children have been killed as a result of U.S. drone strikes. Many Yemeni experts and local activists claim that the civilian deaths caused by these drones are a potent force for driving locals into the arms of Al-Qaida. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ibrahim Mothana, a young Yemeni activist, claimed that “drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.”
Earlier this month, Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Studies and Law, published an article in Foreign Affairs, challenging this widespread assumption. Swift travelled to Yemen and conducted 40 interviews with “tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources”, who came from “14 of Yemen’s 21 provinces, most from rural regions,” and many of whom had “faced insurgent infiltration in their own districts,”actively fought in AQAP, or “had recently visited terrorist strongholds in Jaar and Zinjibar as guests.”
Based on these interviews, Swift found to his astonishment that none of his interlocutors “drew a causal relationship between U.S. drone strikes and al Qaeda recruiting. Indeed, of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al Qaeda more than they were hurting it.”
While acknowledging that civilian deaths caused by U.S. drones could be used by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in its propaganda efforts, Swift notes that “the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient.” Finally, he writes that Yemeni tribal leaders he spoke to reported that young men were driven to Al-Qaeda mostly be economic factors.
With the provocative title “The Drone Blowback Fallacy: Strikes in Yemen aren’t pushing people to Al Qaeda,” Swift’s article caused intense debates within the Yemeni Twitter community. The main question on everyone’s mind is how it is possible that various observations on the effect of drone strikes on AQAP recruitment could be so strikingly different. Here is an excerpt from the debate:
Questions about the identity of Swift’s interlocutors are particularly important here. While Swift provides some details about the people he interviewed, it is important to know the standing of these individuals within their communities. Considering the increased disconnectedness between tribal sheikhs and their tribes, a sheikh’s assessment on the situation may differ from that of the average Yemeni living in the drone-targeted regions.
Benjamin Wiacek, a French journalist based in Sanaa, points out that the issue of trust is also crucial when evaluating these kinds of interviews. He notes that some people may be more reticent to trust foreigners, and are more likely to be openly critical in conversations with other Yemenis.
At the same time, the political interests of Swift’s interlocutors should be scrutinized. In Yemen, patronage and corruption are widespread, and foreign development assistance is viewed as a political rent sought by various players on the political field. Therefore, the question of whether sheikhs are interested in attracting these kinds of rents from abroad, and consequently abstaining from open critique of U.S. foreign policy in Yemen, must be considered.
Questions of methodology are also certainly important when evaluating and comparing the different research results. Nevertheless, Swift’s article shows there is more questioning and investigation needed in order to really understand the impact drones have in southern Yemen, both in regard to their effectiveness in the war against Al-Qaeda, and on civilians and their daily struggles living in targeted regions.