By David Axe
Lethal strikes by armed drones are America’s best and less obtrusive method of killing Islamic militants and dismantling their terror networks while minimizing civilian casualties. Or they’re a misguided and counter-productive attempt at sterilizing the dirty work of counter-terrorism — one that serves as a rallying cry for terrorist recruiters and ends up creating more militants than it eliminates.
Those are the opposing views in one of the most urgent debates in military, policy and humanitarian circles today. Now a new, ground-level investigation by a daring American researcher adds a fresh wrinkle to the controversy. Chris Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law, spent a week in late May interviewing around 40 tribal leaders in southern Yemen, one of the major drone battlegrounds.
What he found might disappoint activists and embolden counter-terrorism officials. “Nobody in my cohort [of interview subjects] drew a causal link between drones on one hand and [militant] recruiting on other,” Swift says.
Tweets, blog posts and news reporting from Yemen seem to contradict Swift’s conclusion. Drone strikes in Yemen have gone up, way up, from around 10 in 2011 to some two dozen so far this year. No fewer than 329 people have died in the Yemen drone campaign, at least 58 of whom were innocent civilians, according to a count by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
But some Yemenis believe the civilian body count is much higher. “For every headline you read regarding ‘militants’ killed by drones in #Yemen, think of the civilians killed that are not reported,” NGO consultant Atiaf Al Wazir Tweeted.
Another Yemeni Twitter user drew the link between the drone war’s innocent victims in a Tweet directed at top U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. “Brennan do you hear us?!!! We say #NoDrones #NoDrones #NoDrones. You are killing innocent people and creating more enemies in #Yemen.”
Reporters have run with the claim that drone strikes breed terrorists. “Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants,” Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in The New York Times.
“Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for Al Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States,” The Washington Post‘s Sudarsan Raghavan reported.
But the narrative embraced by Yemeni Tweeters the Times and the Post originated in, and is sustained by, a comparatively wealthy, educated and English-speaking community based in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, Swift explains. He calls them the “Gucci jean-wearing crowd.” But cosmopolitan Sana’a isn’t breeding many terrorists, and popular opinions in the city don’t necessarily reflect the reality in Yemen’s embattled south.
To get to the sources that really mattered, Swift sensed he had to “get out of the Sana’a political elite,” he says. He teamed up with an experienced fixer — a combined guide, translator and protector — and slipped into heavily-armed Aden in Yemen’s south in the back of pickup trucks. “I always expected that my next checkpoint was going to be my last,” Swift says.
Swift survived some close calls and brought back what is arguably the freshest and most relevant data on militant recruiting in southern Yemen. He has since written articles for Foreign Affairs and the Sentinel counterterrorism journal. In southern Yemen “nobody really gets excited about drones,” he explains. He says his sources were “overwhelming saying that Al Qaeda is recruiting through economic inducement.” In other words, for the most part the terror group pays people to join.
Which isn’t to say Yemen’s militants don’t fear the American killer robots. In fact, they’re “terrified of drones,” Swift says. “They make a big deal of surviving drones in their propaganda videos.”
The militants’ fear of drones perhaps underscores the robots’ effectiveness. It does not argue for widespread resentment among everyday people in southern Yemen that compels them to join the terrorists’ ranks. At least, that’s what Swift believes.
For the record, Swift says he isn’t trying to defend drones on moral grounds. There are plenty of reasons for Americans or anyone else to object to the proliferation of robotic weapons. But it’s important to separate that issue from our understanding of militant recruiting in Yemen, he says. “Our drone debate is our drone debate.”