Frank Cilluffo and I published an article a couple of weeks back where we challenged the popular notion that drones were the single largest contributor to AQAP’s growth in Yemen. One of the sources we cited was a recent interview given by Christopher Swift following his field visit to Yemen. Swift has followed up this week with an excellent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Drone Blowback Fallacy.” I encourage all those involved in this debate to read Swift’s article as it provides a contrasting viewpoint compared to most reporting from the region. Swift notes:
Though critical of the U.S. drone campaign, none of the Islamists and Salafists I interviewed believed that drone strikes explain al Qaeda’s burgeoning numbers.
Swift interviewed roughly 40 people and while his entire article is excellent, I’ll highlight a few key quotes I picked up on. In short, I’ve argued drones are a peripheral factor radicalizing young men to join AQAP. Swift notes:
As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.
Those living in active conflict zones drew clear distinctions between earlier U.S. operations, such as the Majala bombing, and more recent strikes on senior al Qaeda figures. “Things were very bad in 2009,” a tribal militia commander from Abyan province told me, “but now the drones are seen as helping us.” He explained that Yemenis could “accept [drones] as long as there are no more civilian casualties.” An Islamist member of the separatist al-Harak movement offered a similar assessment. “Ordinary people have become very practical about drones,” he said. “If the United States focuses on the leaders and civilians aren’t killed, then drone strikes will hurt al Qaeda more than they help them.”
Some have suggested that AQAP’s emergence comes from very different factors in comparison to other terrorist/insurgent groups. However, Swift notes that economics lead to recruitment. If true, AQAP looks remarkably similar to the Taliban or Shabaab following a regular playbook of buying recruits through tangible benefits (salaries and other direct benefits) and then using the camaraderie of combat to cement social and ideological bonds (intangible benefits) which create enduring membership.
From al Hudaydah in the west to Hadhramaut in the east, AQAP is building complex webs of dependency within Yemen’s rural population. It gives idle teenagers cars, khat, and rifles — the symbols of Yemeni manhood. It pays salaries (up to $400 per month) that lift families out of poverty. It supports weak and marginalized sheikhs by digging wells, distributing patronage to tribesmen, and punishing local criminals. As the leader of one Yemeni tribal confederation told me, “Al Qaeda attracts those who can’t afford to turn away.”
Swift also brings up an interesting twist related to drones and sovereignty.
“Drones remind us that we don’t have the ability to solve our problems by ourselves,” one member of the Yemeni Socialist Party said. “If these were Yemeni drones, rather than American drones, there would be no issue at all.”
And finally, I really liked how Swift concluded the article. We, in the U.S., get hung up about drones. In Yemen, it’s one of a dozen major issues. We like discussing radical ideology at a distance because it’s easier to analyze and understand at a distance. How does one grasp Yemen’s development challenges through the Internet? The economic challenges don’t translate easily into words or YouTube videos.
The United States emphasizes radical ideology. Yemen emphasizes endemic poverty. Washington wants immediate results. Sana’a needs long-term development. Americans fear foreign attacks on their national security. Yemenis resent foreign affronts to their national pride.