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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 – a few hundred feet from farms and homes, a 10-minute drive from the center of the provincial capital – it continues to fuel trepidation among locals.

It’s 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 Yemen’s 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 againstAl Qaeda.

The Obama administration insists targeted strikes against suspected Al Qaeda-affiliated militants are crucial. To many Marebis, however, they are violations of Yemen’s sovereignty that inflame popular anger and sow further instability without making progress battling Al Qaeda. 

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Strikes in the province date back to the earliest days 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 Qa’id 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. 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. According to a 2011 report by The Wall Street Journal, some US officials later accused the Yemeni government of intentionally feeding the US false intelligence – relations had recently soured between Sanaa and Shabwani, a widely respected scion of a prominent tribal family. 

Locals insist the botched strike fundamentally changed the mood in the region, one of Yemen’s most tumultuous. 

“[Shabwani’s death] marked the point where the situation really started to deteriorate,” says Nasser Muhtam, the head of a Mareb-based NGO, reflecting on the province’s increased instability in recent years. “This was someone liked and respected by all of Mareb; someone who resolved problems and helped maintain order. After the strike, everything was affected…and it still hasn’t really improved.”

The next strike here occured almost two years later, amid a dramatic uptick that’s seen the United States carry out more than 60 airstrikes in Yemen in the past two years.

Civilian casualties elsewhere in the country have stirred public outrage, but mistakes of the magnitude of the killing of Shabwani have largely been avoided in Mareb, and even locals say most of those killed there had ties to Al Qaeda.

However, the relative accuracy of strikes do little to temper fear. Anxiety about when the next strike will come and where it will hit is pervasive, fueling paranoia. The psychological effects linger long after the dust settles, locals say.

“The fear doesn’t go away,” says Abdullah al-Haddad, a farmer’s son, his voice shaking as he recounted a strike that occurred near his village last fall. “I’m a simple person – I can’t do anything and don’t know what’s coming.”

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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.

“The end result of the drones, in my opinion, is clear,” says Zein al-Abedin Aishan, a student at Sanaa University’s satellite campus in the city of Mareb. “They’re the biggest thing driving people towards Al Qaeda.”

And most here dismiss US claims that the flurry of strikes have inflicted lasting damage to Al Qaeda.

Marebis largely cast the province’s Al Qaeda presence as a symptom of larger issues, such as chronic underdevelopment and unemployment that need to receive the same level of attention as combating militancy.

“The defeat of Al Qaeda [in Mareb] will only come through education, through comprehensive human and economic development,” says Hussein Saleh, a youth activist based in the provincial capital. “Working with locals – especially tribal leaders – is key.”

With the central government’s 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 – the feeling of powerlessness they fuel has bred an atmosphere of distrust that’s left many here leery of even international humanitarian organizations.

“The US, the Yemeni central government and the Saudis may all have a role to play but none can win this war on their own,” says Gregory Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge,” a new book on Yemen and Al Qaeda. “Only the tribesmen and clerics on the ground in Mareb are in a position to decisively and definitively defeat Al Qaeda.”