predator drone
By Jacqueline Manning Senior Editor December 9, 2012

The drone campaign in Yemen is creating unintended consequences that are counterproductive in the fight against AQAP.

Earlier this year White House counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, named al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen the greatest threat to the U.S. Since 2009, the Obama administration has carried out an estimated 28 drone strikes and 13 air strikes targeting AQAP in Yemen, while the Yemeni Government has carried out 17 strikes, and another five strikes cannot be definitively attributed to either state . There is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of targeted killings by drone strikes in the fight against al-Qaeda. However, what is clear is that the secrecy and unaccountability with which these drone strike are being carried out are undermining U.S. efforts in Yemen.

The drone campaign in Yemen is widely criticized by human rights activists, the local population and even the United Nations for its resulting civilian casualties. It is also credited with fostering animosity towards the U.S. and swaying public sentiment in Yemen in favor of AQAP. The long-term effects, as detailed by a 2012 report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, seem to be particularly devastating. The resulting loss of life, disability, or loss of property of a bread-winner can have long-term impacts, not just on an individual, but on an entire family of dependents.

The effectiveness of drone technology in killing al-Qaeda militants, however, cannot be denied. Targeted killings by drone strikes have eliminated several key AQAP members such as Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani, and Fahd al-Quso . Advocates of the counterterrorism strategy point out that it is much less costly in terms of human lives and money than other military operations.

While there are strong arguments on both sides of the drone debate, both proponents and critics of targeted killings of AQAP operatives by drones agree that transparency and accountability are needed.

Authorizing the CIA to carry out signature strikes is of particular concern. In signature strikes, instead of targeting individual Al Qaeda leaders, the CIA targets locations without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted as long as the locations are linked to a “signature” or pattern of behavior by Al Qaeda officials observed over time. This arbitrary method of targeting often results in avoidable human casualties.

Secrecy surrounding the campaign often means that victims and families of victims receive no acknowledgement of their losses, much less compensation. There are also huge disparities in the reported number of deaths. In addition, according to The New York Times, Obama administration officials define “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” This definition leads to a lack of accountability for those casualties and inflames anti-American sentiment.

In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, Ben Emmerson, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, asserted that, “Human rights abuses have all too often contributed to the grievances which cause people to make the wrong choices and to resort to terrorism….human rights compliant counter-terrorism measures help to prevent the recruitment of individuals to acts of terrorism.” There is now statistical evidence that supports this claim. A 2010 opinion poll conducted by the New America Foundation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have been carried out on a much larger scale, shows an overwhelming opposition to U.S. drone strikes coupled with a majority support for suicide attacks on U.S. forces under some circumstances.

It is clear that the drone debate is not simply a matter of morality and human rights; it is also a matter of ineffective tactics. At a minimum the U.S. must implement a policy of transparency and accountability in the use of drones. Signature strikes take unacceptable risks with innocent lives. Targets must be identified more responsibly, and risks of civilian casualties should be minimized. When civilian casualties do occur, the United States must not only acknowledge them, but also pay amends to families of the victims.

The debate over the strategic effectiveness of drones in countering al-Qaeda will continue. However, whether or not the tactic is effective, the elements of secrecy and unaccountability are creating unintended consequences that are counterproductive in the fight against AQAP in Yemen.

Jacqueline Manning is a first year master’s student at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Before coming to the Elliott School, she spent a year working for a media company in Yemen. She is an editor for the International Affairs Review Journal print edition and on-line edition. Contact: jsm39@gwu.edu

Photo courtesy of Abayomi Azikiwe via Flickr.