SANAA/DUBAI – An intense two days of airstrikes on al-Qaida in Yemen may have killed or wounded some of its commanders, but drones alone are unlikely to eradicate the threat the group poses to Yemenis and the West.
A weak central government, a rivalry-ridden and poorly equipped security force, endemic poverty and corruption have made Yemen the ideal haven of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whom U.S. President Barack Obama has described as the group “most active in plotting against our homeland.”
Desperate to prevent AQAP from planning more attacks like its attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in December 2009, Washington has used drones to kill group members and leaders.
A U.S. national security source said Monday that the U.S. government believed that AQAP is currently plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
But analysts say drone strikes do only limited harm to AQAP. They say the group will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.
“The U.S. can’t simply kill its way out of the terrorism threat,” said Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism.
“The U.S. and other concerned nations should address all the drivers of terrorism including poverty, illiteracy, political marginalization and lack of opportunity for young people.”
The drones’ main success has been to severely limit AQAP’s movements and ability to hold territory as it did back in 2011.
“When they move from A to B, they have to think 100 times. They’ve lost their freedom,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.
“It (drones) is very effective, but this is not going to deal with the problem. These people are replaceable. You can kill 10 of them and there’s 10 more in the pipeline. (So) it’s a success that won’t end the war against AQAP,” he said.
On Saturday and Sunday, several airstrikes — presumed to be carried out chiefly by U.S. drones — were launched on central and southern provinces of Yemen.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said 55 militants were killed on Sunday alone, which would make it the biggest strike against al-Qaida militants since at least 2012.
“Drone strikes are never the solution. It is a tactical Band-Aid but it can be quite an important one if you don’t want to see planes dropping from the sky in the West,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi praised the anti-terrorism unit in Yemen’s special forces for their strike in Shabwa, which he said targeted “dangerous leading elements of al-Qaida” and described the operation as one “that represents a strong message to the elements of evil and terrorism.”
But the use of drone strikes has inevitably meant that civilian casualties are sometimes inflicted.
The government acknowledged that three civilians were killed in the airstrike on Saturday in the central al-Bayda province. That same province was the site of a controversial strike in December in which security officials said 15 people on their way to a wedding were killed.
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