Johnsen: U.S. strategy in Yemen not working

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The struggle against al Qaeda in Yemen may become a lasting model for U.S. fights against non-state actors, but it hasn't worked, Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen said at the Brookings Institution Nov. 13.

The approach to counterterror in Yemen, where the United States carriers out air strikes but avoids putting boots on the ground, seems to have emerged as the country's preferred way to fight terrorist groups, Johnsen said. He questioned, for one thing, whether U.S. drone strikes have actually eliminated irreplaceable al Qaeda leaders.

For example, some U.S. officials have portrayed Ibrahim al-Siri, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's chief bombmaker, as a rare mastermind. But al Qaeda taught him how to make bombs at some point, and Johnsen said it's safe to assume he has trained others in the years he's been in Yemen.

AQAP has also continued to operate even though drone strikes have killed some of its leaders, he noted.

Johnsen, who has been part of a U.S. Agency for International Development team in Yemen and also a Fulbright fellow there, is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.

He suggested that policymakers don't understand the popular sentiment in Yemen because U.S. officials there don't interact much with Yemenis. They isolate themselves because of security risks, which the September killing of U.S. diplomats in Libya has shown to be very real.

But "when you don't get out, even into the capital city, it's very, very difficult to ascertain what's actually going on there in the country," Johnsen said.

If U.S. officials interacted with the population more, they would find widespread animosity about the civilian deaths that have resulted from drones strikes, he said. He also said that drone strikes are riskier in Yemen than in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda members are generally Arabs in a non-Arab country, but in Yemen, al Qaeda's members are largely Yemeni and more likely to have ties to the local community, he said.

That means a U.S. drone strike that kills an al Qaeda member in Yemen is more likely to be seen as the killing of a fellow tribesman, someone known as a community member and not just a terrorist.

Drone strikes, along with other factors like Yemen's mass unemployment and poverty, may explain why al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown while al Qaeda has fallen out of favor in other parts of the world, Johnsen said.

For more:
- go to the Brookings event webpage (audio available)

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