Over the past three days, more
than 50 suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been killed
in a spate of mysterious attacks in Yemen. But what really happened? That very
much depends on the news story you read.
attributed the attacks to "several air strikes -- presumed to be carried out
chiefly by U.S. drones." The Associated Press and Reuters both cited a statement from Yemen's
Ministry of Defense announcing the attack before noting that the United States has been known to use drone strikes in the area
targeted this weekend, but both stopped short of saying the attacks were carried out by
drones. These and other news stories leave room for the possibility that the
attacks were carried out by the Yemeni Air Force -- which is strange, given
that Yemen has no credible way of carrying out such strikes with its crippled
fleet of aircraft.
"The Yemenis were always big on
the [drone] program and maintained the fiction for the longest time that it was
the Yemeni Air Force that was doing it, these strikes," former counterterrorism
czar Richard Clarke told Foreign Policy
in a recent interview.
The U.S. drone campaign in Yemen
has been an open secret for years, despite the Yemeni government's efforts to
take credit for the airstrikes and Washington's consistent refusals to comment
on them. A now infamous Jan. 10, 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks describes a meeting between
Gen. David Petraeus, then-head of the military's Central Command, and Yemeni
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which Saleh "welcomed the use of
aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs."
The cable goes on to explicitly
describe the underhanded tactics employed by Yemen and the United States to
mask the use of U.S. drones in Yemen:
"We'll continue saying the bombs
are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke
that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan,
and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the [Yemeni government].
Since 2002, it is estimated that the United States has carried out more than
100 strikes in Yemen, killing
between 775 and 1,018 people, according to data compiled by the New America
Foundation. "A large part of the media, the mainstream media just sort of
bought it for a long time," Clarke said. "‘Oh yes, the Yemenis' air force was
doing this.' The Yemeni Air Force can hardly get a plane off the ground."
Yemen has a fleet of 79 combat aircraft, but they are
plagued by parts shortages and equipment malfunctions. Last month, BuzzFeed reported that the U.S. military was
considering sending armed crop dusters to Yemen to give the Yemeni Air Force
the capability to carry out missile strikes -- but even if the United States
did send these durable, easy-to-fly planes to Yemen, they would be flown with
American co-pilots, according to the proposal.
Even the Yemeni government, now
led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh's former vice president, has admitted its
role in the drone campaign. In a Sept. 2012 interview with the Washington Post, Hadi said that he personally approved every U.S.
drone strike on Yemeni soil.
Nonetheless, the Yemeni Ministry
of Defense persists in its policy of not attributing a source to the airstrikes
or claiming them as Yemeni operations, and the U.S. government still does not
comment on strikes carried out by the CIA or the military's Joint Special
As a result, initial reporting
about U.S. drone strikes remains mired in frustrating innuendoes and code
words. Here at FP, we want to help.
So here's how to translate drone reporting into English.
Reports of airstrikes against AQAP
targets in Yemen typically do not identify the nationality of the aircraft that
launched the strike. They do so not because the United States will not confirm
or deny that its aircraft carried out the strike. Though this often hints at
the long-standing false reports that the Yemeni government conducted the
strike, the Yemeni Air Force is virtually incapable of conducting airstrikes.
Reliably, these strikes prove to have been conducted by the United States.
Suspected al Qaeda militants
The (U.S.) airstrikes over the
weekend killed "suspected militants." But those suspected militants have at
times proven to have been something else, as when, on Dec. 12, 2013, a U.S.
drone strike targeted a wedding convoy that had been
mistaken for AQAP fighters. After that botched strike, the pace of U.S. strikes
in Yemen slowed dramatically -- until the release of the AQAP video last month,
which was followed by a strike on April 1 and the series of strikes
The White House has a broad
definition for who counts as a "suspected al Qaeda militant." According to a
2012 New York Times report, White House policy "in effect counts
all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants ... unless there is
explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." At least 81
civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, according the Peter Bergen, director of the
International Security Program at the New America Foundation.
Senior al Qaeda leaders
Many reports, including some
published about these most recent strikes, suggest that
the strikes targeted senior figures in AQAP. But out of 753 to 965 AQAP
casualties inflicted by U.S. drone strikes, only about a dozen have been senior figures in the
organization, according to estimates by the New America Foundation.
While drone strikes have killed
AQAP's deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, and its chief propagandist,
American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, other notable figures, many of whom have
fought with AQAP since it was reconstituted in 2009, remain at large. Even when
the United States has claimed to have killed some of the group's senior
leaders, they have had a habit of reappearing alive months later.
The bottom-line: Take initial
reports about American drone strikes with a large grain of salt.
Senior Airman David Carbajal/DVIDS