MARIB, YEMEN — An escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen has sparked anger from residents and tribal leaders. The drone strikes, according to the victims’ relatives, not only killed suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but also killed and injured a number of civilians. The recent escalation comes after the commander of the U.S Central Forces, Joseph Votel, handed ousted former Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi a list of al-Qaeda military commanders and their supporters being targeted by the United States, according to local news outlets close to Hadi.
Last week, a suspected C.I.A. drone targeted a home alleged to contain al-Qaeda leader Qassim al-Rimi in Marib Province, allegedly killing not only al-Rimi but some innocent civilians as well. By Washington’s standards, residents told MintPress, just because they were near the house, those civilians deserved to die alongside al-Qaeda.
The drone strike took place in the al-Hazmah region in the eastern province of Marib on a home that was allegedly used to store weapons. The house, according to local tribal leaders and witnesses, was targeted by more than one airstrike and left no survivors. A local al-Qaeda leader that went by the nickname Qusayleh was also killed in the attack. Many of his bodyguards were killed and injured in another attack that targeted a car near Bin Maieli, outside of al-Hazmah.
Witnesses told MintPress that massive explosions rocked the area in the aftermath of the attack and that al-Qaeda fighters arrived in the area soon after and cordoned it off. The al-Qaeda fighters, according to witnesses, were all Yemeni. According to two local tribal sources who spoke to MintPress on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals, al-Rimi, the intended target of the attack, was not among the dead.
The latest U.S. airstrikes have been widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. They have also forced civilians in the district to flee their homes and farms and have created fear among women and children in the region.
Just as they did in the tribal areas of Yemen’s south, where U.S. drone strikes regularly target suspected al-Qaeda members, the latest attacks in Marib have caused a marked increase in the radicalization of tribesmen and victims’ relatives. Many tribesmen have already joined AQAP not out of support for its ideology, but out of resentment towards the United States. The majority of residents in the region want to see both an end to U.S. aggression and al-Qaeda’s presence.
In the wake of the U.S. attack, tribesmen in the district expressed sympathy with both residents and al-Qaeda. Some even promised to join the terror network. “U.S. drones do not differentiate between civilians and al-Qaeda-linked fighters,” said farmer Ali Hammoud, adding that one of his relatives was killed in the attack. “In the end, you will be killed by plane, whether you are a civilian, or from al-Qaeda. Joining al-Qaeda is what is on my mind now.”
Local al-Qaeda leaders are taking advantage of the anger to attract more recruits and financing from Yemen’s people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas. But the drone strikes do not only make al-Qaeda recruiting easier, they also broaden the social space in which the group can safely function with local support. Furthermore, the death of civilians in U.S. drones strikes gives resonance to al-Qaeda’s claims that their strategies in fighting the U.S. are justified.
Regardless of what leaders in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to terrorist threats, the reality for Yemenis, including the Houthis, is that the United States is waging an undeclared war on Yemen and that its drone strikes are one of the many ways in which it runs roughshod over Yemen’s sovereignty.
A Saudi-backed AQAP resurgence
Yemen’s tribal leaders and residents in Marib, which closely borders Houthi territory but remains largely under Saudi Coalition control, and other eastern provinces blame the United States and the Saudi-led coalition for the proliferation of AQAP in the region. They complain that the global network has been expanded and built dozens of training and military bases supported by the coalition and overlooked by the Trump administration.
A high-ranking tribal leader in Marib who spoke to MintPress on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals claimed that AQAP operative Jamal al-Badawi, accused of bombing the USS Cole in 2000 and killing American soldiers, was receiving significant funds estimated at millions of U.S. Dollars from senior officials in the ousted Hadi government. The funds, he claimed, were transferred via local tribal sheikh and were to be spent on rebuilding al-Qaeda’s presence in the province. MintPress could not independently verify his claim.
The Saudi-led coalition’s support for al-Qaeda in Yemen is no longer a secret. In a recent development, Yemeni media aired footage of dead Saudi troops alongside dozens of al-Qaeda members following an attack by the Houthis. The fighters were armed with western weapons (particularly American and Canadian), armored vehicles, medium and heavy weapons and ammunition.
Al-Qaeda fighters were also a major component of the coalition forces in the Nihm, Marib, and al-Jawf battlefields. Hundreds of them were killed by Saudi airstrikes while trying to escape the incoming Houthi advance. Others were injured or captured by Houthis fighters.
For their part, the Houthis view the recent U.S. attacks as an attempt to dispose of an invoncenviet ally for fear that their strongholds, and the wealth of coalition-supplied weapons within them, could fall into Houthi hands. The Saudi-led Coalition regularly targets its own arms with airstrikes in the wake of withdrawals.
The drone attack against al-Qaeda comes as Houthi fighters are getting closer to capturing the Marib and al-Jawf provinces, areas that have been the most important strongholds of al-Qaeda since 2015, when the war on the country began. But, according to Houthi officials, the mediation by the coalition has successfully slowed the Houthi advance towards Marib and al-Jawf.
Feature photo | A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing US drones strikes in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sana’a. Khaled Abdullah | Reuters
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.