Journal Essay

Drone Warfare in Yemen: Fostering Emirates through Counterterrorism?

Leila Hudson, Colin S. Owens, David J. Callen

Fall 2012, Volume XIX, Number 3

Dr. Hudson is associate director of the School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies at the University of Arizona and director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Mr. Owens is a graduate of the School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies and the School of Government and Public Policy, and Mr. Callen is a PhD candidate at the School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies. Mr. Owens and Mr. Callen are research associates at SISMEC.

Over much of the past year in the restive country of Yemen, the Abyan and Shabwa provincial regions were declared Islamic emirates, harboring fighters of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and testing the crude governing powers of emergent groups like Ansar al-Sharia, before being retaken in the summer of 2012 by the Yemeni military. In light of the application of the Obama administration's counterterrorism (CT) and military strategy in Yemen, the question arises whether the use of drones may not have contributed to instability, rather than serving as a simple "solution" to the rise of extremist Islamism. We will argue that, in addition to the five distinct forms of blowback we identified in the use of drones in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Yemen allows us to inquire into longer-term blowback. This can arise when al-Qaeda's "farther" and "nearer" enemies collude in raining death and uncertainty from the skies via unmanned vehicles, creating opportunities for Taliban-like law-and-order groups to govern unruly provinces at ground level.

The counterterrorism "kill or capture" campaign initiated by the Bush administration after 9/11 relies almost exclusively on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. Under the Obama administration, the drone campaign has increased in terms of raw numbers and geographical reach. While Pakistan's FATA has been the battleground for U.S. drone warfare, the theater has expanded into Yemen. The deaths of Osama bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi and the nearly decade-long drone campaign in FATA have led the Obama administration to conclude that the original al-Qaeda cadre is no longer capable of facilitating, coordinating and conducting strikes on the United States. However, a new threat has allegedly emerged from a more adept and diverse "al-Qaeda 2.0." Largely based in Yemen, it incorporates more dual citizens, many holding U.S. passports, who are capable of moving between elusive al-Qaeda circles and mainstream Western societies.

An extensive CT drone campaign requires coordination with the central government of the territories in question. Evidently, Ali Abdallah Saleh's Yemeni government knew of the program and participated in it. Wikileaks revealed the particulars of a 2010 meeting with General David Petraeus, in which former President Saleh said (speaking of air strikes in general), "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." Moreover, Saleh lamented mistakes due to the inaccuracy of cruise-missile strikes and preferred that the United States use fixed-wing aircraft (i.e., drones) in the future. Since then, the administration has increased its drone strikes and expanded the targeting parameters within Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Among the many ironies of drone strikes, Saleh's candor showed that old-style authoritarians are not above happily claiming credit for borrowed military power to enhance their "legitimacy."

Over the last decade, FATA has been subject to the largest drone campaign to date. The program started off slowly in 2004 under the Bush administration and has been expanded greatly. During Bush's tenure, there were approximately 50 strikes in FATA from 2004 to 2009. In Obama's first two years in office, from 2009 to 2010, the number of strikes in FATA tripled in half as much time. After 2010, the busiest year, drone strikes in FATA have decreased from 70 in 2011 to less than 25 in the first half of 2012. Notwithstanding the decrease in drone usage in FATA, this new and largely preferred program for "disrupting" or "decapitating" U.S. foes is not in decline; it has simply shifted location.

In our previous article, we posited that the increasing number of drone strikes in FATA and the decreasing ratio of deaths of so-called "high-value targets" (HVTs) to total deaths was a result of the larger payloads on UAVs and increasingly lax targeting requirements. And, as with the case of Pakistan, new technologies and the recent White House authorization that gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) more options to conduct strikes in Yemen, will likely produce a similar outcome.1 New technology with larger payload capacity and wider targeting parameters through the use of "signature strikes," designed to eliminate groups of people who appear (conveniently and posthumously) to be militants, will likely produce an increase in the lethality and frequency of drone strikes in Yemen.

Just as likely, as the case of FATA has clearly shown, increased strikes in Yemen will produce distinct forms of blowback. This will manifest itself in terms of increased recruitment for al-Qaeda or affiliated groups and a reduction of the Yemeni leadership's ability to govern, increasing competition from alternative groups.

In the case of drone use in FATA, we identified five distinct forms of blowback, all of which are directly applicable to the use of drones in Yemen. The first, purposeful retaliation is typified by the events of the 2009 Khost bombing of CIA Camp Chapman and, more recently, an al-Qaeda attack earlier in 2012 on a liquid-natural-gas pipeline running through Yemen's Shabwa province.2 The motivation behind both of these attacks has been cited as the unremitting presence of, and specific attacks from, U.S.-operated drones. The second form of blowback deals with the increased ability of AQAP to recruit new members, especially those who have had friends or family killed in the attacks. Third, an overreliance on drones creates strategic confusion. While the United States is not waging a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign next to Yemen — as it is in Afghanistan, Pakistan's western neighbor — the control of the drone program has oscillated between the CIA and JSOC, reducing U.S. accountability and blurring the lines between military and intelligence operations. Taken together, these three factors foster two additional forms of blowback: the continued destabilization of Yemen and an increasingly precarious alliance between the American and Yemeni governments. All told, these distinct forms of blowback combine to heighten Yemen's ungovernability.


Drone Bases and Ranges

Yemen provides the opportunity to discern new patterns of blowback from a drone campaign based on instability and privileged relationships between host countries and the United States. As the Pakistani case has demonstrated, drone programs flourish and grow best in secret and in environments of limited state capacity. This allows the United States to track, target and kill those it deems threats to national security with relative impunity and limited interference. However, as the U.S. counterterror drone campaign needs instability, if not actual terrorism, to remain effective, it must "cultivate ungovernability" to ensure its future success.  Even as drone projects target terror, they may be cultivating the more broad-based condition called "insurgency" in military parlance. The perpetuation of instability in areas beyond the reach of traditional state governance seems to lead to alternative forms, such as the grandiosely named Islamic emirates.

Moreover, though drone programs function in areas of limited state capacity, they still rely on at least the nominal support of the local regime. The resultant relationship may be beneficial to specific parties in some ways, but ultimately it complicates both domestic politics in the host nation and the international standing of the United States. The combination of these two conditions creates a blurring of the lines between domestic security and globalized U.S. national security concerns.


Year Number of Strikes Number Killed
2002 1 6
2011 10 81
2012 20 146-180
Note: The number of strikes and the number of people killed have been calculated after conducting a complete review of all news sources related to the subject. For more information please see:

Yemen Drone Strikes

ering off since 2010. The ever-increasing use of drones in one location is simply not sustainable. Some high-level al-Qaeda officials have left FATA, others have been killed, and some appear unreachable, all of which reduce the number of targets. Moreover, though difficult to prove, there must be a tipping point at which the unrestricted use of drones produces what strategists might coldly call "diminishing marginal utility" in the face of increasing anti-American sentiment and domestic unrest. As a result of these conditions, we now see the drone program to which the Obama administration is committed through enthusiastic investment in hardware, training and strategy, moving to Yemen. Ostensibly, this new theater provides a larger target base with a major AQAP presence and has yet to see a sustained level of drone activity that could reach this tipping point.

After the attacks of 9/11, partnership quickly intensified between the United States and the Yemeni government — largely Saleh's extended family, which controls the military/security complex — aimed at providing aid and conducting joint counterterrorism operations. Since 2007, $326 million in security assistance has been given to the Yemeni government.3 Though its military did gain from such cooperation, all of the U.S. efforts have been dedicated to strengthening the counterterrorism capabilities of special forces and dedicated counterterrorism units. Included in these packages are advanced tactical training, weapons and surveillance equipment as well as armored vehicles, airplanes, helicopters and sea vessels. By providing Yemen with the capacity to contain terrorism within its borders, the United States would need to devote less direct attention to the situation and could focus more intently on the drone program. However, by the time of the onset of widespread militancy in spring 2011, the majority of this hardware was sitting idly by, and cash had found its way into other pockets. Maybe even more telling is that those forces trained for counterterrorism operations were redeployed to insulate the regime from the civilian uprisings and the emergent Ansar al-Sharia.4

Yemen has a unique role in the history of drone warfare, given its "bookending" of drones as a counterterrorism tool. In retaliation for the attack on the USS Cole by al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch in 2000, the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone in November 2002. The first strike in a drone-based counterterrorism program, it killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, one of the alleged masterminds of the Cole attack. Additionally, the strike also killed Ahmed Hijazi, an American citizen who reportedly fueled the fundamentalism of the "Lackawanna Six."5 This attack marked the first use of a drone strike outside an official war zone, and Hijazi's death prompted legal concerns, though U.S. officials claimed that he was neither the target of the attack nor known to be in proximity to al-Harithi. The legality of using drones to conduct targeted killings on Americans resurfaced in 2011 after the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric whose teachings and Internet postings influenced the actions of both foreign terrorists like Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab and homegrown ones like Nidal Hassan. Also killed in the same attack was Samir Khan, another American citizen and the editor of AQAP's English-language recruitment tool, Inspire magazine.6 A subsequent strike killed Awlaqi's 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen. It would appear as though Yemen has become the battlefield in which the United States targets and kills Americans involved in terrorism.7

On a larger scale, Yemen had witnessed the growth of so-called "global terrorism" over the previous several decades, predominantly through the operations of al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch. Under the leadership of Nasir al-Wuhaishi and with the help of Awlaki, the group officially morphed into AQAP in 2009 by merging with the Saudi Arabian branch. Even prior to 9/11, Yemen served as a hub (actively or passively) for mujahideen traveling to Afghanistan, and it was the site of major coordination efforts for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. This continued with the Cole attack, extending through 9/11 and beyond. After these attacks, the United States identified AQAP as the principal group operating in Yemen and the broader Horn of Africa that actively seeks to attack the U.S. homeland. Consequently, counterterrorism operations in Yemen, having begun with the Harithi strike in 2002, continued through a budding partnership with the Yemeni military and security apparatus. These actions consisted of joint airstrikes planned and carried out by both U.S. and Yemeni forces. The United States also provided millions in military aid, both dollars and matériel, to support these efforts. While drones were routinely used as part of such operations, outside of the strike on Harithi, they served only surveillance and targeting purposes. President Saleh was more than happy to enter into such a partnership, as financial gains accrued to his extended family, and he was able to capitalize on the increased security capabilities to insulate his regime from internal unrest.

However, this began to change in 2009 as Awlaki and AQAP became more prominent. The United States started to take a more active role in direct counterterrorism and expanded its operations to include targeted killings through cruise missiles launched from vessels of the Navy's Fifth Fleet. In May 2010, a misguided strike killed a Yemeni official and tribal mediator who had been actively seeking to negotiate the surrender of al-Qaeda elements in the area, as well as an unknown number of civilians.8 The Wikileaks cables reveal that, in addition to offering an open door to U.S. attacks against al-Qaeda — including support for increased cruise-missile attacks and even U.S. troops on the ground — Saleh moved to take responsibility for all the strikes.9 While he undoubtedly offered this misinformation for selfish reasons, the United States decided to do its own damage control. Subsequently, the counterterror airstrike campaign went into a year-long hiatus, further delaying the return of armed drones to Yemen.

The reappearance of armed drones in mid-2011 may be more than just a simple return, but rather a clear example of the themes we explore in this paper. Those same leaked cables reveal that, even though General Petraeus offered troops to Saleh, the Yemeni leader dismissed the idea out of concern for U.S. casualties. Saleh played the political game well, capitalizing on both Obama's new drone-based military strategy and the U.S.-Yemeni codependency to get drones to help with his projection of power. Not coincidentally, the increased frequency after the return corresponded to the height of domestic unrest in Yemen's Arab Spring and the attack on Saleh's compound in June 2011. It also mirrored the shift in U.S. counterterrorism priorities away from al-Qaeda Central in Afghanistan-Pakistan to AQAP and its affiliates in Yemen and the Horn of Africa after the death of Osama bin Laden. Over the next few months, the attacks in Yemen numbered at least five, though the strikes did not kill a single HVT. That would change on September 30 with the strike that killed Awlaki and Khan. An attack two weeks later took the life of Awlaki's son, also an American, and a number of other "militants." Most recently, a strike on May 6, 2012, killed Fahd al-Quso, a senior AQAP operative and alleged planner of both the Cole attack and the failed Christmas Day bombing.

Into this already broken and divided system, the region-wide uprisings of 2011 surged, creating an even more complex dynamic. Sparked by economic hardship, political corruption and ruthless police states, these movements often sought wholesale reform, including regime change. Initial protests in Yemen, as elsewhere, were peaceful. However as Saleh continued refusing to hand over power, they grew increasingly hostile, culminating on June 3, 2011, in an attack on the presidential compound. The explosions injured Saleh, forcing him to travel to Saudi Arabia and New York City for treatment. Upon his return from New York, he agreed to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered transfer of power that left Vice President Abedrabu Mansour Hadi as the interim president. Elections in early March upheld this result. However, given that Hadi had been vice president for over half of Saleh's 33-year rule, the question remains whether the Arab Spring actually brought much change to Yemen. Compounding this concern is Saleh's own assertion that, while he was stepping down as president, he was continuing his influential political role as head of the ruling party.10

Irrespective of this regime "change," Saleh's regime had managed to maintain control over Sana'a as well as other population centers, despite the ongoing Houthi and secessionist rebellions. As shown by the attack on Saleh's compound, the Arab Spring in Yemen signaled that the regime now faced unrest on three fronts and resources formerly used to quell the insurgencies were redirected to insulate the regime from new threats. As a result, movements like Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP began to really take hold. After a year-long hiatus in aid due to the Yemeni uprising, Congress has recently renewed and intensified its commitment to the Hadi/Saleh regime, directing more than $100 million in counterterrorism aid to the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior for the coming fiscal year.11

Obama's Counterterrorism Strategy

Following the successful raid on Abbottabad in May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden, U.S. authorities touted the notion that "al-Qaeda 1.0" was strategically impotent. The argument goes that the original al-Qaeda leaders could not continue to plan and carry out attacks on the United States through the highly formalized process they had once used. Rather, the new and continued threat would come from "al-Qaeda 2.0." This decentralized and savvy organization, largely operating out of Yemen and populated by dual-passport holders, would allow increased infiltration into the United States. As the focus has shifted from Pakistan's al-Qaeda 1.0 to Yemen's al-Qaeda 2.0, the geography of drone strikes clearly shifted as well. Related to this transition is a decreasing number of high-value targets in FATA as well as increasingly outraged public sentiment in Pakistan against the tactic of "signature strikes." Thus, with the falling off of strikes in Pakistan from 2010, starting in 2011, Yemen began to pick up the slack. Ultimately, these changes in threat and local conditions, as well as the U.S. response, mark the evolution of the Obama administration's military strategy.

When we refer to Obama's military strategy, we mean a concerted program largely based on counterterrorism. According to Obama, the United States is "at war with a specific organization," al-Qaeda. A counterterrorism policy signals that the strategy is aimed at protecting the homeland from this one enemy, not at creating more stable areas through counterinsurgency or intervening through broader conventional military engagements.12 This approach relies less on the general military and more on the capacities of JSOC and the CIA. The strategy under Bush had been operating a costly counterinsurgency campaign involving the entire military and supported by a smaller drone campaign. Obama's adoption of a counterterrorism-only policy focuses on a specific enemy and largely rules out large-scale, long-term counterinsurgency operations. Due to the often heavy and unpopular political and economic price tags of counterinsurgency, Obama's "counterterrorism after counterinsurgency" or "CT 2.0," resembles a stark departure from both COIN and previous counterterrorism programs. The principal manifestation of this new strategy is drone-based targeted killing, promoted as a comparatively cheap, quick and easy alternative to COIN's efforts at stabilizing and strengthening governance in regions where extremists operate.

This shift to drones plays out in a transition of operational responsibility to JSOC and the CIA. Since the core of the strategy is counterterrorism aimed at an organization, the conventional military is deemed too cumbersome for the precision necessary to attack such a foe, whether through drones or "daring raids." In response, JSOC's numbers have risen significantly, and the CIA continues to receive expanded operational parameters. The issue of who controls the drone program also matters. Both the CIA and JSOC provide the executive branch with unique and strategic political benefits not only to direct action in Yemen but in the broader drone program and counterterrorism policy in general.13 JSOC control enables the program to project a public face on the "War on Terror" and capitalize on patriotism and public relations, enhancing de facto executive war powers. The "covert" CIA program provides a black budget and general operational secrecy. It also allows the administration to circumvent the connotations of war that having an official military presence in a country often portrays. Even the appointment of General Petraeus as director of the CIA may represent a strategic political move to confer legitimacy on the drone program. By co-opting the architect of modern U.S. counterinsurgency to head his counterterrorism national-defense strategy, Obama removes any traces of a campaign that seeks to win hearts and minds.

With this adjusted strategy in mind, it is easy to see why drones have become the preferred method to deal with non-state actors. Drones are not only cheaper but carry less potential political cost than traditional piloted aircraft or invasion. The latest generation of piloted jets (the F22 Raptor) is nearly $100 million more expensive than the latest drone (the MQ-9 Reaper).14 Additionally, a drone can stay airborne much longer than a piloted jet, which reduces strain on personnel, lost time and wasted fuel.15 On the political balance sheet, using unmanned aircraft removes service members from the equation, eliminating the possibility of American deaths as a direct result of conflict. Moreover, drone bases appear less intrusive to host nations, likely due to their small operational footprint and minimal attached personnel required to operate and maintain the craft. Additionally, unmanned platforms make it easier for the United States to conduct operations from supporting nations; remote piloting carries comparatively limited connotations of war.

As a result, there has been an increase in construction of drone-related infrastructure projects across the region, all the way to the Horn of Africa. Because of the nature of Obama's new military strategy and its focus on counterterrorism, Yemen and Somalia play a greater role in current and future U.S. national-security concerns. Not only is the number of strikes in Yemen increasing, the scope of territory in which the United States can conduct a strike is expanding as well. While this may be in response to the refocus from al-Qaeda Central in Afghanistan-Pakistan to AQAP in Yemen, this repositioning may also help the United States stay on top of evolving threats in the Horn, such as piracy and the potential for al-Shabab in Somalia to morph into "AQ 3.0."16

While the Bush administration chose to put boots on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has taken a more covert approach. He ostensibly ended U.S. involvement in Iraq and has started reducing the U.S. troop footprint in Afghanistan, leading up to a complete handover of security to the Afghan government in 2014.17 The new and untested drone campaign was relatively muted under the Bush administration. However, under the Obama administration this method of dealing with national security threats, perceived or real, has taken on increased importance. Thus, Obama's military strategy relies almost exclusively on counterterrorism, marking a break from Bush's expansive and expensive approach. By relying on an operationally smaller and more fiscally compact strategy, Obama capitalizes on the more politically expedient and media-friendly nature of the drone program.

However, despite pledges of increased transparency in war policy, in comparison to his predecessor, Obama has actually accomplished his goals for Iraq and Afghanistan in part by redefining warfare and replacing conventional invasion with acts of covert violations of sovereignty. In removing counterinsurgency from the equation, this new strategy actually has the potential to create an entrenched culture of insurgency, as sustained insecurity leads to alternative forms of governance. Obama's policy is even more persistent and opaque than the conventional invasions/occupations of the Bush era. The United States is now operating under a military strategy that reflects the paradox of its Nobel Peace Prize-winning drone warrior-in-chief: no overt stabs in the heart, but a thousand covert cuts and limited potential to apply tourniquets.

Executive Executions and Signature Strikes

Currently, the United States engages in two types of drone strikes, and neither is the surgical excision of HVTs on which the American public's enthusiasm for drones depends. Until early 2012, the United States only conducted "personality strikes," in Yemen. These are authorized by the president in a form of executive execution. The targets have not been indicted for a crime, let alone convicted, and have been identified as enemy combatants through an opaque process. A significant percentage of the targets and victims of this type of strike in Yemen have been U.S. citizens (Ahmed Hijazi, Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki). Their families have recently brought a civil suit in U.S. courts that will help clarify the obscure de facto parameters for executive executions.18

While there have been successful HVT strikes on non-U.S. citizens in Yemen, they probably follow the Pakistani pattern, alienating parts of the local population and increasing the insecurity that often fosters organizational recruitment. In fact, Yemen may provide a more significant example of this effect than FATA because of its complex internal situation, noted above. According to our calculations, only four HVTs have been killed out of 230-270 total deaths. This is roughly a 1:60 ratio of HVT to total deaths, comparable to the ratio in FATA under the Bush administration (before the proliferation of signature strikes).

In early 2012, the White House authorized the use of "signature strikes" in Yemen. This type of targeting allows for wider parameters, quicker response and authorization at a lower command level. Signature strikes have also been used in FATA. They are based on categories of possible target groups and patterns of movement rather than on identified individuals. For example, a group of militant-age men carrying weapons and moving towards a known militant area can be targeted under this practice. As some reports from Yemen note, the populace is not opposed to the use of drones when they target and hit known AQAP members.19 However, the introduction of signature strikes will likely change this dynamic, as it has in FATA. With signature strikes, accuracy in targeting will likely decrease, and more Yemenis unconnected to AQAP will be killed.

Drone strikes, probably imprecise and reflecting targeting priorities established far away, lead to animosity towards the U.S. government. However, when the local regime supports or cooperates with the United States, it encounters the same sentiments from its citizens, heightened by feelings of betrayal. Both of these developments may result in general insecurity but also an increased sympathy, in this case, for AQAP, Ansar al-Sharia and similar groups, irrespective of whether the group's stated enemy is the United States or Yemen. When these anti-government sentiments interact with the existing conflicts in Yemen one wonders if the United States may use drones to help secure an allied regime, especially given the nature of signature strikes.20

Dubious pattern-based signature strikes set Yemen counterterrorism projects up for the same patterns of increasing civilian death, blowback and instability as were seen in FATA as the HVTs ran out. Personality strikes or executive executions, including those on U.S. citizens in Yemen, coupled with the commingling of closed-door U.S. and Yemeni targeting determinations, suggest that — in addition to recruiting frontline AQAP members from attack survivors — drone-based counterterrorism fosters new kinds of political environments that function as broad resistance communities. In the investment in an automated machine to rage against the imagined threat of a global caliphate, drone counterterror seems to help create localized provincial Islamist emirates.

"Helpers" and Safe Havens

The fusion of Yemeni-U.S. counterterrorism and might-makes-right legitimacy projects through drone warfare has resulted not just in the growth of recruitment for AQAP, but also in the flourishing of broad-based Taliban-like groups such as Ansar al-Sharia. As former CIA official Robert Grenier put it, drones, and in particular signature strikes, may help to create a "larger terrorist safe haven in Yemen."21 When state power is exercised in the sky (not just through strikes, but also through surveillance), it leaves a vacuum to be filled on the ground. The presence of a formal state apparatus in Islamist strongholds like Abyan and Shabwa provinces from 2011 to the spring of 2012, only circled far overhead. Rather than bringing adversaries to heel, these operations undermined the weak central government's legitimacy and created a vacuum in which the state was incapable of delivering basic law enforcement and justice services. Thus, given limited state capacity, the ground was more easily controlled by AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia.

Though these two groups are often lumped together and their tactics and sympathies do coincide — indeed, AQAP claims it set up Ansar al-Sharia to prepare society and win supporters — such a conflation runs the risk of glossing over key distinctions. The most notable is that Ansar al-Sharia is an anti-regime tribal movement focused on the near enemy of the Yemeni government. "Card-carrying" membership in AQAP involves a hard-core commitment to the technical aspects of war and political violence. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia are designed to be broader in scope and membership, focusing on a local Islamically oriented state and society governed by a rough and pragmatic interpretation of sharia law. Many of its members have experienced such a state in Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. Sympathizers who lack the frontline skills for an al-Qaeda core (tactical, operational, strategic and technical media) can participate in a "helpers" group like Ansar, which resembles the Afghan Taliban, the hosts of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan who focused on narrow sharia interpretations for a local code-of-order alternative to warlordism. According to Christopher Swift, who interviewed residents from different Yemeni provinces in spring 2012, frontline AQAP recruits for the suicide missions that brought the provincial extremists to Sanaa tended to be Somalis, valued for their paramilitary training in al-Shabab, not local Yemenis. Ansar-type groups, in theory, are less about fighting and more about running daily life in the society that harbors the hard-core fighters.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring in Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia has conducted an insurgency campaign against the regime, often through the use of terror tactics, and has captured Abyan province in the south, where fighting continues daily over the provincial capital of Zinjibar. However, in addition to its militancy, Ansar al-Sharia also capitalizes on the government's lack of capacity to provide social services in contested provinces. In replacing the central government, Ansar al-Sharia is able to popularize its struggle by demonstrating its viability as an alternative to the current regime.

Abyan and, to a lesser extent, Shabwa provinces have served as AQAP strongholds. Strategically, Abyan is very important, located just northeast of Aden, and could be used as a staging area for an assault on the port city. Given its strategic location and AQAP's declaration in March 2011 that Abyan was an "Islamic emirate," Abyan has seen extensive fighting. Unsurprisingly, Abyan has also seen the largest number of drone attacks in the country. Over the last year, AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia have fought the government largely in a tit-for-tat manner, without a decisive victor. However, it appears that the government has recently changed the tide in the south. In mid-June, government forces retook Zinjibar and Jaar and followed fighters into neighboring Shabwa, taking the city of Azzan.

A Time magazine reporter visiting Abyan in July 2012, in the wake of its recapture by the Yemeni military offensive of early summer, found that "many jihadists are believed to have simply blended into the local population" and that even the popular committees set up after the end of the short-lived emirate were "al-Qaeda without the beards."22 The appeal of these broader groups is not just demographic — accommodating a wider range of skill sets in the local population — but also functional. Ansar (helpers) are local hosts, echoing the seventh-century distinction between the original Muhajireen — emigrants from pre-Islamic Mecca who accompanied the prophet Muhammad out of his native city — and the Ansar of Medina, helpers who received them in the future capital. Looking at Afghanistan and the relationship between the relocated al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1990s, or even Somalia and the Somali Courts movement prior to the emergence of the Shabab fighters, the larger groups attract "students," "helpers" and "jurisprudents" in the service not just of global jihad, but of the crucial project of running a safe haven. The names of these types of groups, translated as "students" and "youth," also reflect the broader demographic and social functions of the host group compared to the narrower base of the vanguard militants.

Along with picking his way through the minefields and bombed out buildings of Zinjibar, the Time reporter met the obligatory amputee thieves, objects of the harsh penal code that is the hallmark of an Islamist emirate. An emirate comes with a prepackaged hudud-based operating system (predetermined punishments for specific crimes) dumbed down for easy application. "Well, that's the punishment for stealing," is the laconic response of the popular committee member to the shocked American visitor. The code is clear, simple, popular and justice-oriented. In a might-makes-right failing nation-state animated by counterterrorism, it is local, non-arbitrary, principled and carries the necessary bloody imprimatur of the times.

Afghanistan in the wake of warlordism, Pakistan's FATA in the cynical calculations of the Islamabad government, Sudan and Somalia over the last troubled decades, and now the last festering authoritarian governments under the siege of the Arab Spring, like Yemen (and perhaps Syria as well), are, by definition, failing states. Not rogue states, whose support to militant groups is part of a larger strategy of strength (like Iran or pre-Arab Spring authoritarians), but failing. The central government seeks U.S.-sponsored counterterror projects as a mode of legitimacy and material support. This occurs even as non-state actors hunker down, not for warfare but also for crude emergency law-and-order governance in wide swaths of territory.

To what extent did the Yemeni-U.S. joint counterterrorism project pave the way for more AQAP recruitment and the 2011 takeover of Abyan and Shabwa provinces by the more broad-based social force known as Ansar al-Sharia? This is a question only those on the ground can answer, and our speculation, like so much in U.S.-Yemeni policy, is distant and theoretical. Although secessionism, the Houthi rebellion and Islamism, coupled with economic and ecological disasters and the popular uprisings, weakened the Saleh regime, counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. government provided access to much-needed external military and other resources that extend its lifespan. The ongoing conflict with the safe-haven provinces provide the justification for this lifeline.

Conclusion: Local Emirates vs. Global Caliphates

Robotic warfare is the next big revolution in military affairs (RMA), akin to the advent of steamships, portable automatic weapons, tanks and weaponized aircraft. A RMA is more than a simple creation of new technology; it is the adoption of specific technology that changes the way conflict is conducted. The United States is not the only state developing and pioneering drones; in fact, the United States bought its first drones for the 1991 Gulf War from an Israeli defense contractor. Moreover, nearly one-quarter of all nation-states are developing or producing drones, for either surveillance or attacks.23 Non-state actors deploy drones as well, most notably Hezbollah against Israel during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon.24 While other nations and non-state actors have started adopting unmanned systems in greater numbers, nowhere has new technology had more of a strategic impact than in the United States. Under the Obama administration, the use of drones has become the preferred method of counterterrorism. As with previous RMAs, technology outpaces the development of law and doctrine concerning how to deal with them appropriately. This allows new technology to be shifted into different arenas and used to address complex issues before the new operating environment is fully understood.

The extensive use of UAVs for executive executions and signature strikes with Yemeni government partners is a dangerous precedent that lends itself to the creation of local-emirate enclaves. The counterterrorism co-dependency between the weak central governments of failing states like Yemen and their U.S. sponsors is aimed at an al-Qaeda whose perceived global aim is a caliphate. The classical caliphate, of course, derives its legitimacy from the notion of succession; a caliph is a vehicle for concentrated authority, inherited from the prophet and ultimately the deity. But, theorists of counterterrorism have fetishized the notion of the international caliphate, much as many intellectually naive Islamist extremists do.

Among the Afghan Taliban, in Pakistan's FATA region, and in Yemen's Islamist provinces, small pieces of territory are locally conceptualized as emirates or Islamist principalities. The amir al-mumineen (commander of the faithful) is often translated as "prince," but an amir commands faithful followers, gives instructions, maintains order and leads in battle. The caliph Umar (r. 634-644) was the first commander of the faithful, overseeing tremendous expansion of the new polity. His successors, and many lesser men, also used the exalted title; it reflects the most pragmatic aspects of leadership. An amir's authority comes not by the passive route of inheritance, but from action and the mobilization of the community in its struggles. As a principality, an emirate is usually compact in territory, extending no further than the prestige of its leader and its manpower resources. Like the erstwhile Abyan and Shabwa emirates, the form is small and ephemeral. But such a unit arguably has a greater claim to functional territorial reality than al-Qaeda's mediated networks of sympathizers or even new salafi political parties. Like Hamas and Hezbollah with territories, struggles, resources, challenges and communities, these types of units may well take their place in the world of non-state actors that make a difference.

As Yemen returns to its pre-Arab Spring normality, in which counterterrorism aid was one of the pillars of state sustainability, and the renegade emirates are restored to nominal government control, we can assess the future of such safe havens. They are strategically important; they harbor resistance and nurture the habits of harsh and simplistic sharia-based societies. They are miniscule in scale and subject to ruthless offensives by air and land special forces. But, with the characteristic patterns that military counterinsurgency strategy struggles against, resistance culture lives and evolves in real time in these environments. With fast-expanding U.S. and international UAV fleets and large amounts of counterterror funding authorized by the U.S. Congress for East and Central Africa, the question of safe-haven emirates may become an issue. And in Syria, as the Assad regime collapses, thoughts of direct intervention — inconsistent with the Obama military strategy and unpopular after the Iraqi and Afghan debacles — have given way to talk of new safe-havens and no-fly zones, along with covert intelligence and arms provided by intermediaries to elements of the Free Syrian Army. If unchecked by legal challenge, the precedent of executive executions and signature drone strikes takes the U.S. commander-in-chief one step closer to his own kind of emirate.

1 Eric Schmitt, "U.S. to Step Up Drone Strikes Inside Yemen," New York Times, April 25, 2012, accessed June 26, 2012,

2 "Yemen Pipeline Sabotaged in Drone Retaliation: Gunmen Blow Up a Pipeline, Halting Operations House after Drone Strike Killed Five Suspected al-Qaeda Fighters," Al Jazeera English, March 31, 2012, accessed May 12, 2012,

3 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Uncertain Political and Security Situation Challenges U.S. Efforts to Implement a Comprehensive Strategy in Yemen, Prepared for Congressional Committees. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office 2012.

4 Jeremy Scahill, "Washington's War in Yemen Backfires," Nation, February 14, 2012, accessed February 16, 2012,

5 "‘Lackawanna 6' Link to Yemen Killings?" CBS News, October 12, 2010, accessed March 13, 2012,

6 Robbie Brown and Kim Severson, "2nd American in Strike Waged Qaeda Media War," New York Times, September 30, 2011, accessed April 18, 2012, middleeast/samir-khan-killed-by-drone-spun-out-of-the-american-middle-class.html.

7 Though significant to any discussion of drones, the legal issues involved in targeting and killing Americans have been thoroughly and carefully documented elsewhere; therefore, they do not receive detailed attention in this article. For examples, see Nathan Hodge, "Drone Wars: The Legal Debate Continues," WIRED, March 31, 2010,; "Drones and the Law," Economist, October 8, 2011, /node/21531477; and Brendan Gogarty and Meredith Hagger, "The Laws of Man over Vehicles Unmanned: The Legal Response to Robotic Revolution on Sea, Land and Air," Journal of Law, Information & Science 19, no. 1 (2011): 73-145.

8 Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam, "Air Strike Kills Yemen Mediator," Reuters, May 25, 2010, accessed January 28, 2012,

9 Robert Booth and Ian Black, "WikiLeaks Cables: Yemen Offered U.S. ‘Open Door' to Attack al-Qaida on Its Soil," Guardian, December 3, 2010, accessed April 18, 2012, 2010/dec/03/wikileaks-yemen-us-attack-al-qaida.

10 "Ali Abdullah Saleh," New York Times, February 28, 2012, accessed April 14, 2012,

11 Jeremy M. Sharp, "Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations," Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office 2012.

12 Daren DeYoung, "Brennan: Counterterrorism Strategy Focused on al-Qaeda's Threat to Homeland," Washington Post, June 29, 2011, accessed April 14, 2012, national-security/brennan-counterterrorism-strategy-focused-on-al-qaedas-threat-to-homeland/2011/06/29/AGki1LrH_story.html?hpid=z1.

13 Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, "CIA Plans Yemen Drone Strikes," Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2011, accessed May 2, 2012, SB10001424052702303848104576384051572679110.html.

14 David Axe, "Buyer's Remorse: How Much Has the F-22 Really Cost?," WIRED, December 14, 2011, accessed January 23, 2012,

15 "Drones: American's New Air Force," 60 Minutes, accessed May 17, 2012,;contentBody.

16 Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, "Iran in the Horn of Africa: Outflanking U.S. Allies," Middle East Policy 19, no. 2 (Summer 2012).

17 Mark Landler and Helene Cooper, "Obama Will Speed Pullout from War in Afghanistan," New York Times, June 22, 2012, accessed June 26, 2012, world/asia/23prexy.html?pagewanted=1.

18 Carrie Johnson, "Families Sue Over U.S. Deaths in Yemen Drone Strikes," NPR, July 26, 2012, accessed July 26, 2012,; and "Military Sued over al-Awlaki Yemen Drone Strike," CNN, July 18, 2012, accessed July 26, 2012,

19 Christopher Swift, "The Drone Blowback Fallacy: Strikes in Yemen Aren't Pushing People to Al Qaeda," Foreign Affairs, July 1, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, articles/137760/christopher-swift/the-drone-blowback-fallacy.

20 Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, "In Yemen, Lines Blur as U.S. Steps Up Airstrikes," Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2012, accessed April 12, 2012,

21 Paul Harris, "Drone Attacks Create Terrorist Safe Havens, Warns Former CIA Official," Guardian, June 5, 2012, accessed June 26, 2012,

22 Bobby Ghosh, "Where Terrorists Have Tanks: A Ride through al-Qaeda Country," Time World, July 25, 2012, accessed July 25, 2012,

23 Jackie Northam, "Popularity of Drones Takes Off for Many Countries," July 26, 2012, accessed July 26, 2012,

24 P. W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press, 2009).