Trump Drone War Against al Qaeda Paying Dividends
Since taking office, Trump has been particularly focused on targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a major affiliate of the al-Qaeda network that operates primarily in Yemen and is a significant threat to the West. The Trump administration has escalated strike activity and walked back Obama era policies that restricted military and CIA operations in Yemen. As his first year in office comes to an end, it’s worth looking back at the president’s strike activity as a marker for what’s to come under, as well as after, his administration. How Trump dictates operations against AQAP will hold lasting consequences for future counterterrorism policies, regional stability, and the evolution of al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula became the terrorist network’s successor after the 9/11 attack forced its central leadership into hiding and out of Southwest Asia. The move was intended to refocus efforts on the Middle East and ensure operations would be run by an Arab affiliate well situated in the region. The terrorist organization has been more persistent in launching attacks against the U.S. and Europe than any other group, such as the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the unsuccessful underwear bomber attack in 2009. In 2016, the Obama administration described AQAP as “the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qaeda today.”
The Yemen civil war has created a situation ripe for exploitation by AQAP. While the Saudi coalition-backed Yemeni government faces off against Houthi rebels and Iran, AQAP has gained ground and support. In the political vacuum created over the past two years, AQAP has captured military garrisons, government buildings, energy facilities and ports, and at one point claimed significant amounts of territory in southeast Yemen. It has been able to do so with little to no resistance by Yemeni security forces. As a result, AQAP has established a deep hold over its territories through long-term “hearts and minds” campaigns to appeal to civilians, thus securing a base from which to launch attacks.
In coordination with the Yemeni government, the U.S. carries out drone and air strikes primarily against AQAP leaders and bases, but also against other terrorist organizations in Yemen, such as the Islamic State and al-Shabaab. These strikes are coordinated primarily by U.S. Central Command.
Reports diverge slightly, as strike numbers and casualty counts are difficult to verify through open sources and definitions of what constitutes a strike or what should be considered a casualty vary. According to New America, the U.S. military has launched 227 strikes in Yemen since 2002. Other counts by Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports the total number of confirmed air and drone strikes as at least 289. These strikes use a variety of weapons including Predator and Reaper drones, and Hellfire and Tomahawk missiles. During his presidency, Obama conducted a total of 183 strikes.
Since taking office, Trump had made his counterterrorism strategy one of his top priorities. The Trump administration’s first counterterrorism mission was a Navy SEAL raid on an AQAP compound; the botched attack resulted in over 40 casualties including SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.
Strikes against AQAP have become more aggressive under the Trump Administration. According to New America, the Trump Administration has conducted 44 strikes so far this year, 42 by drones and two ground operations. These numbers do indicate an escalation in strikes compared to the number of strikes in the past three years.
As noted in New America’s reporting, “since President Trump took office, the Pentagon reports multiple series of strikes that are not possible to verify individually. By the Pentagon’s estimates, Trump’s counterterrorism strikes exceed what is represented here.” This is evident in the significant differences between reports; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports the number of confirmed strikes in 2017 as 124, with 50 alone in the month of March — the highest number of U.S. strikes in Yemen ever in one month.
Trump’s agenda in Yemen is an about-face from the policies pursued by his predecessor. Under the approval of the Trump administration, the Pentagon has declared parts of three provinces in Yemen “war zones,” thereby loosening strike rules. In a reverse of Obama era policies, Trump eased restrictions on the CIA’s involvement in drone strikes by reinstating strike authority for the intelligence agency. This move no longer mandates cooperation between the intelligence community and the military to locate targets and execute strikes, and does not require the agency to disclose casualty statistics.
The White House has also moved to increase U.S. presence in or surrounding Yemen. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense announced that an unspecified number of Special Ops troops were sent to Yemen to help Emirati partners push AQAP out of their de-facto capital and provide “surveillance, aerial refueling, and close air support.” The Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, consisting of more than 4,000 sailors and Marines, were stationed outside of Yemen in March 2017 for seven months.
The Trump administration’s counterterrorism policies in Yemen indicate a sustained aggressive approach against various terrorist organizations in the area, particularly AQAP. While drone strikes have been effective in decimating AQAP’s leadership, thereby keeping the U.S. casualty count low, the president must determine how his administration will continue the precarious balance of operating in a country engulfed in civil war without becoming directly involved in the conflict.
It is vital that the Trump administration keeps in mind AQAP’s prominence as the leading branch of the al-Qaeda brand. Al-Qaeda has proven its resilience by evolving to existential threats throughout the years to remain at the forefront of the jihadist movement and continue to pose a large threat to the West. Destroying AQAP would be a major blow against the al-Qaeda network, and a significant victory that will protect our homeland and international interests.
Rathna K. Muralidharan is a program director at the Lexington Institute with a focus on global security and regional politics. You can follow her at @RathnaKM and the Lexington Institute @LextNextDC. Read her full biography here.