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The flawed logic of US drone strikes in Yemen 

by Benedict Wilkinson

Benedict Wilkinson is in the final stages of his PhD at King’s College London, where he is writing about the strategies of violent Islamist groups in Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He was previously Head of Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute, where he now holds an Associate Fellowship. The following article draws on the author’s presentation to the Society on 10 May.

For US military planners and Government officials, it seems, drone strikes are becoming an increasingly attractive tool for addressing the threat presented by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its insurgent partner, Ansar al-Sharia. This year has witnessed such a dramatic intensification in airstrikes that, by early July, there was an average of nearly one every week – up from fewer than one a month in 2011 and one every six months in 2009.[1] In 2012 alone, airstrikes have been responsible for the death of 161 people, nine of whom were civilians and the remainder alleged members of AQAP or its subsidiaries.

As drone strikes have become an increasingly prominent feature in the ‘Global War on Terror’, their strategic logic has become correspondingly questionable. Strategically speaking, drone strikes operate on three levels. Primarily, they aim to reduce the capability of an enemy by removing personnel. The fewer militants available to a terrorist group, so the argument runs, the more difficult it is for that organisation to carry out attacks. Identifying appropriate targets is not, however, always straightforward and it is for this reason that drone strikes are predominantly directed towards high-profile leaders who have authority within a terrorist organisation. Here, on the second level, the idea is to remove those individuals with the vision to mastermind plots and the charisma to inspire others to carry them out. Decapitating an organisation – that is, removing these senior management levels – will leave those in the lower ranks and on the margins of a terrorist organisation without the guiding force needed in order for them to project a significant threat. Of course, drone strikes are not only coercive, they are also deterrent. They send a high-profile message to potential supporters and those on the fringes that deeper involvement in terrorist organisations entails a risk which outweighs the benefits.

However, the efficacy of such a policy is dependent not only on the strategic logic of drone strikes, but on the nature of the opposition which they target. This presents perhaps the greatest problem for US counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen. It is all too easy to assume that AQAP and its insurgent subsidiary, Ansar al-Sharia, represent an essentially hierarchical organisation with a static membership against whom drones strikes will be effective. Closer analysis of the group suggests that this is far from accurate.

The Nature of AQAP 

lthough the organisation’s roots can be traced back to a 2006 prison break in which 23 militants escaped, it was not until 2009 that AQAP formally announced its existence. Since then, the group has expanded not only in terms of personnel, swelling its ranks from a handful of escaped prisoners by recruiting both locally and abroad, but also in modus operandi. In the early days of the group’s existence, attacks were generally directed at local political and security figures on the one hand, or western diplomatic and touristic presence in Yemen on the other. Not long after AQAP’s formal merger with the broader al-Qa’ida movement in 2009, however, the group began to attempt missions abroad, firstly in Saudi Arabia and then in the United States.

Hand in hand with this escalation in targeting ambitions went the development and growth of a dedicated media wing, whose remit was to disseminate propaganda in the form of online magazines in Arabic and English. The Anglophone publication, called Inspire, has acquired a level of notoriety in western media, in part, no doubt, because of its slick format and ability to appeal to would-be militants in the West. But in part, it is also because of the alleged involvement of Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American-born Yemeni who acquired something of a cult status for his fluent English and ability to convert complex (pseudo)-religious concepts into simpler sound bites in his sermons and written material. For many in the media, al- Awlaqi presented AQAP’s greatest threat. This view, it seems, was mirrored in US official circles: a number of attempts were made on alAwlaqi’s life and in September of last year, he was killed in a drone strike alongside Samir Khan, the editor of the same magazine. Although their deaths produced a hiatus in the publishing of Inspire, it was only temporary: in May of this year, two further issues of Inspire were released by its new editor, Yahya Ibrahim.

Unfortunately for US officials, drone strikes have not only failed to put an end to the group, but have actually goaded the organisation into further expansion. In the last year, Ansar al-Sharia, a semi-autonomous insurgent subsidiary of AQAP, has emerged, capable of taking control of sizeable pockets of Yemeni territory. In this period, the group has taken control of Ja’ar and Zinjibar in the South. Ansar al-Sharia has been careful, however, to cloak violence in a softer, humanitarian visage by pandering to the needs of ordinary Yemenis. There are numerous examples of the group’s involvement in the provision of basic services (water, electricity and so on), as well as the abolition of taxes and establishing courts in order to maintain and distribute justice.

AQAP’s recruitment strategy has also matured in the last eighteen months or so. Originally, the group sought to attract foreigners to Yemen for training and further ideological development, before returning them to their home countries in the knowledge that their passports provided a certain level of operational security. More recently, AQAP has come to realise that this gambit is unlikely to work in the face of increased security at airports. Demonstrating their organisational flexibility, they have now adapted this strategy and seek not to attract supporters to Yemen, but to mobilise them into undertaking their own jihadi enterprises at home. It is in their written material that AQAP provide interested parties with various strategies for undertaking terrorist activity abroad. Undoubtedly, it is this final point that continues to cause most concern to security officials in the US and the west more broadly. Indeed, it is likely to have been this development which brought individuals like Anwar al-Awlaqi and Samir Khan to the top of the target list.

Flaws in the Logic of Drones Strikes 

If we take this analysis a little further, it reveals ramifications both for the type of group that AQAP has become and the nature of the threat it poses as well as for the US strategy of countering AQAP through drone strikes. The first and perhaps most important point is that AQAP is, by no stretch of the imagination, a rigid hierarchy with a static membership. Rather, as commentators have long pointed out for the broader al-Qa’ida movement, it is a relatively nebulous phenomenon, that comprises not just the shura council and regional commanders, but a whole host of fellow travellers, sympathisers and self-initiates both in Yemen and beyond. In short, AQAP is a relatively decentralised organisation. Whilst the shura council, comprising the leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and his senior commanders form the backbone of the organisation, the other branches – wings occupied with the insurgency, social affairs, propaganda and so on – appear not only to be flexible, adaptive and opportunistic, but also to retain some degree of autonomy. It is precisely these characteristics which make drone strikes ineffectual at best and counter-productive at worst.

Decentralised organisations of this type pose two unique problems for drone strikes. First, it is extremely difficult to identify where, precisely, an individual sits in the hierarchy and, by extension, to assess whether they are an appropriate target. Anwar al-Awlaqi is a case in point. For some, he was the ‘Head of Foreign Operations’, a title he is reputed to have used in an article in Inspire magazine.[2] Under this analysis, al-Awlaki was responsible for guiding terrorist plots abroad and ensuring that these caused maximum damage. For other analysts, myself amongst them, he was little more than a useful ideologue, drafted in by the leadership for his ability to disseminate propaganda effectively in English. Whatever the position he really occupied, it is reasonably clear that he drew little respect from the long-term al-Qa’ida leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. bin Laden went so far as to step in and deny requests from AQAP that al-Awlaqi should be promoted, noting rather drily that, ‘we would like to be reassured more [about al-Awlaqi]. For example, we here become reassured of people when they go to the line [e.g. go into battle] and get examined there’. In cases such as this, the killing of an individual on the periphery of an organisation (or connected by ideology rather than activity) not only fails to limit their influence and usefulness for the group, but actually lionises them in the memory of their followers. Needless to say, the two most recent editions of Inspire are heavily devoted to Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.

The second problem is that even if a leading figure is identified, it rarely deals a death blow to the organisation. The most poignant example is in the killing of Osama bin Laden which has, to all intents and purposes, failed to make any significant impact on al-Qa’ida. This is part of the nature of semi-hierarchical organisations like al-Qa’ida: because plans are developed at every level, it is unlikely that decapitating the organisation will render it inoperable. Indeed, more often than not, the opposite is the case: drone strikes can cause considerable anger in local populations, not simply from the loss of civilian life, but over the involvement of foreign forces on home soil. In such cases, drone strikes do not limit terrorist organisations by reducing the personnel available to them, rather they can actually increase the capacity of an organisation by driving local populations towards the very groups they are designed to counter.

To sum up: AQAP is a largely decentralised organisation which displays all the traits of resilience, flexibility and resourcefulness displayed by the broader al-Qa’ida movement. Attempts to remove the senior leadership of such an organisation – and in so doing, expedite the group’s demise – are not only unlikely to work, but likely to increase local support for precisely those individuals one is trying to defeat. Bearing this in mind, US officials need to find alternative methods for limiting the progress of AQAP – methods founded on closer partnership with both the Yemeni government and the Yemeni people.


1 These figures are taken from The Long War Journal ‘The Covert US Air Campaign in Yemen’, available at

2 See e.g. T. Hegghammer, ‘The Case for Chasing al-Awlaki,’ in Foreign Policy (2010).

Vol 20. 2012