In Yemen, drones' ill effects linger long after dust settles
Locals in Yemen's Mareb province say they live in constant fear that drones will damage more than their intended targets.
The impact crater faded back into the sands long ago, but locals can still point out with ease the site of the May 12, 2012, US airstrike near al-Husoon village. The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) later acknowledged that six of its fighters were killed when a drone fired two missiles at two vehicles carrying the militants.
It was a clean strike: It didn't kill any civilians, nor did it damage any property. But because of its location â a few hundred feet from farms and homes, a 10-minute drive from the center of the provincial capital â it continues to fuel trepidation among locals.
Itâs been months since an American airstrike has occurred in Mareb Province, but past strikes still cast a heavy shadow here. Many say that they associate the United States almost solely with one thing: intermittent, unannounced drone strikes. Despite the fact that Yemenâs government openly allows the drone campaign, opposition runs deep in Mareb. Locals say the strikes have inflamed preexisting resentment of the central government, stoked fear among civilians and fueled anti-American sentiment. They also argue that the strikes have ultimately hampered the fight against Al Qaeda.
The Obama administration insists targeted strikes against suspected Al Qaeda-affiliated militants are crucial. To many Marebis, however, they are violations of Yemenâs sovereignty that inflame popular anger and sow further instability without making progress battling Al Qaeda.Â
Strikes in the province date back to the earliest daysÂ of aggressive American counterterrorism operations in Yemen: The first drone operation in the Arabian Peninsula struck this province in November 2002. The attack killed six suspected fighters, including leading Al Qaeda militant Qaâid Salem Sinan al-Harethi and US citizen Kamal Derwish.
But it is the second confirmed strike here, which came nearly eight years later, that still grips the public.Â That strike, on May 24, 2010, accidentally struck a vehicle carrying Jabir al-Shabwani, killing the then-deputy governor of Mareb and three other passengers.
The cause of the error that led to Mr. Shabwani's death remains unclear.Â According to a 2011 report by The Wall Street Journal, some US officials later accusedÂ the Yemeni government of intentionallyÂ feeding the US false intelligence â relations had recently soured between Sanaa and Shabwani,Â a widely respected scion of a prominent tribal family.Â
Locals insist the botched strike fundamentally changed the mood in the region, one of Yemen's most tumultuous.Â
â[Shabwaniâs death] marked the point where the situation really started to deteriorate,â says Nasser Muhtam, the head of a Mareb-based NGO, reflecting on the provinceâs increased instability in recent years. âThis was someone liked and respected by all of Mareb; someone who resolved problems and helped maintain order. After the strike, everything was affectedâŚand it still hasnât really improved.â
The next strike here occured almost two years later, amid a dramatic uptick thatâs seen the United States carry out more than 60 airstrikes in Yemen in the past two years.
Civilian casualties elsewhere in the countryÂ have stirred public outrage, but mistakes of the magnitude of the killing of Shabwani have largely been avoided in Mareb, and even localsÂ say most of those killed there had ties to Al Qaeda.
However,Â theÂ relative accuracy of strikesÂ do little to temper fear. Anxiety about when the next strike will come andÂ whereÂ it will hit is pervasive, fueling paranoia. The psychological effects linger long after the dust settles, locals say.
âThe fear doesnât go away,â says Abdullah al-Haddad, a farmerâs son, his voice shaking as he recounted a strike that occurred near his village last fall. âIâm a simple person â I canât do anything and donât know whatâs coming.â
Lingering fears of ending up in the path of an incoming strike may be unfounded, but many here believe that the greatest threat to their safety comes from efforts to combat local militants, rather than the fighters themselves.
âThe end result of the drones, in my opinion, is clear,â says Zein al-Abedin Aishan, a student at Sanaa Universityâs satellite campus in the city of Mareb. âTheyâre the biggest thing driving people towards Al Qaeda.â
And most here dismiss US claims that the flurry of strikes have inflicted lasting damage to Al Qaeda.
Marebis largely cast the provinceâs Al Qaeda presence as a symptom of larger issues,Â such as chronicÂ underdevelopment and unemployment thatÂ need to receive the same level of attentionÂ as combating militancy.
âThe defeat of Al Qaeda [in Mareb] will only come through education, through comprehensive human and economic development,â says Hussein Saleh, a youth activist based in the provincial capital. âWorking with locals â especially tribal leaders â is key.â
With the central governmentâs hand largely negligible outside of the province capital, analysts say, the position of local leaders is crucial.
Fallout from the airstrikes, locals warn, threatens to doom any attempts at collaboration â the feeling of powerlessness they fuel has bred an atmosphere of distrust thatâs left many here leery of even international humanitarian organizations.
âThe US, the Yemeni central government and the Saudis may all have a role to play but none can win this war on their own,â says Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge," a new book on Yemen and Al Qaeda. âOnly the tribesmen and clerics on the ground in Mareb are in a position to decisively and definitively defeat Al Qaeda.âÂ