The American policy of employing Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, is eliciting mixed responses from various international actors. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are amongst the most vocal critics of the policy, publically raising questions both over the legality and the non-discretionary use of drones in the Middle East. Individual governments have criticized the violation of sovereignty that comes from drone use. Pakistan's foreign ministry noted that "[drone] attacks are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations." The policy however remains popular with the U.S. government, which allows drones to gather intelligence on and eliminate dangerous terrorist leaders, while not having to commit soldiers to combat. The two regions where America prominently employs drones are Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) and Yemen, the latter of which shall be discussed in depth. American drones in Yemen primarily target Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, and are managed and controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). While American drone use in Yemen dates back to 2000, the present intensity and frequency of drone operations in Yemen since March 2012, is unprecedented.
The Case for Drones
The drone policy has clear benefits, which are relevant considerations in light of the new American military doctrine. Unlike the Bush administration that supported boots on the ground, the Obama administration has relied far more heavily on strategic technology. The Obama doctrine is a product of various forces, most notably the fiscal indiscipline of past governments. Given the lack of public support for boots on the ground, technology provides the thrust to military efforts overseas. As an offensive weapon, drones have proven record of success in Yemen. Responsible for eliminating many of AQAP's top leaders (notable casualties including Fahd al Quso, Anwar al Awlaki and numerous other Al Qaeda and Islamist militants in the region), it is alleged that the central spine of Al Qaeda is moving from the besieged AfPak to Yemen. AQAP holds that the Abyan Governorate in Yemen is an "Islamic Emirate" and many on-ground efforts, including the construction of madrassas have already taken place in Abyan.
The geographic proximity of Yemen to Somalia makes it a precarious hub for terrorist activity. Al Shabaab, the Somali based cell of Al Qaeda has grown closer to AQAP over the last 12 months, with the organization merging in February 2012. Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage (Ali Dhere) went as far as to say, "We (Al Shabaab) are the branch of AQAP in Somalia." It is thought that militants from Somalia are crossing borders and fighting with Ansar al Sharia and AQAP; Yemeni Security Forces have arrested Somalis who were aiding AQAP operations in Yemen. Al Shabaab also maintains a Kiswahili propaganda magazine that is similar in structure and function to AQAP's "Inspire". The merger indicates the squeeze that both organizations are feeling in their respective "home territories" of Somalia and AfPak respectively, with Al Shabaab getting pressed by and Al Qaeda by American drone attacks. Al Shabaab also faces the threat of disintegration; discord between Al Shabaab's spiritual leader Hassan Dahir Ayews, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and former Emir of Al Shabaab Moktar Ali Zubeyr,(known as Godane) threaten to atomize Al Shabaab. It has been alleged that Godane and militants loyal to him may end up crossing the Gulf of Aden and finding a safe haven in Yemen from which they can continue their operations in the region.
The looming possibility of Yemen becoming the locus for terrorist operations highlights the need to continue, possibly even accelerate, the use of drones in Yemen. Despite AQAP's fortification of its presence in Yemen in recent months, the group's reach is still limited mostly to the Abyan Governorate. Given this dynamic, drones offer a lethal and efficacious choice of weaponry. Over 200 militants have been killed in drone strikes in 2012, including prominent leaders such as Hadaar al-Homaiqani, Nasser al-Thafry [aka Zafari] and leading Ansar al Sharia militant Mohammed al-Sabri. Reports from inside the country also claim that U.S. airstrikes have hit military targets, including a weapons storage facility near Jaar in southern Yemen. U.S. strikes also appear to be occasionally coordinated with Yemeni military advances on al-Qaeda positions in the south. A plausible explanation for the migration of Al Qaeda to Yemen could be the increased use of drones in AfPak, with reports claiming that over 2000 militants and alleged militants have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. Given AQAP's desire to expand outside Yemen after consolidating its position it is essential that we prevent Yemen from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda operations. To get as close as possible to achieving that aim, it is necessary to use drone strikes that take out major AQAP leaders and destroy AQAP infrastructure.
The drone policy also acts as a rearguard against the internal dissent from tribesmen, militants and the general public directed at Yemeni President Abd al-Hadi. The U.S. shares a close relationship with the Yemeni government. It seems that the U.S. needs to maintain al-Hadi as a ally. Clearly, it seems, that al-Hadi needs the U.S. to fill the void that exists from inadequate domestic and international support. This mutualistic relationship may explain the increase in targeted killings in Yemen since al-Hadi took over power. Therefore, while the U.S. has its own incentives to operate drones in Yemen, eliminating key AQAP leaders helps reduce domestic opposition to al-Hadi, a crucial American foreign policy interest.
Drones are also important tools of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in Yemen. The terrain of Southern Yemen is amongst the most inhospitable in the Middle East, with the preponderance of drone strikes (with the exception of Zinjbar) occurring at altitudes that above 1000m above sea level. The rugged and mountainous terrain of Yemen makes it difficult to maintain a sustained human presence on the ground for ISR purposes, a difficulty exacerbated by the incline of the slopes. In addition to the challenging terrain of south Yemen, persistent conflict between tribal leaders, the Yemeni military and AQAP in the Abyan Governorate poses a great security threat to any on-ground intelligence officials. Furthermore, there are doubts over the accuracy of Yemeni intelligence; in past experiences, drone strikes have been used manipulatively to eliminate opponents of the regime based on Yemeni intelligence. For instance, a drone strike on May 25, 2010, killed six people, including Jabir Shabwani, the deputy governor of Yemen's central Ma'arib province. The strong jealousy and enmity that exists within the Yemeni government makes it worthwhile to have a secondary source of information - a gap that is filled by drones.