By Carl Prine
PITTSBURGH, PA – It’s my very great pleasure to welcome back to Line of Departure Christopher Swift.
Very great, I say, because he’s alive, and I didn’t lay good odds on his longevity when he told me he was sojourning into the heart of Yemen, including districts contested by al Qaeda, to explore the insurgencies dogging the Arab nation.
You see, Swift did all this without being accompanied by Marines Security Guards as a honored guest of the embassy but rather from the back of technicals, getting passed from sheikh to sheikh along roads plied by highwaymen and guerrillas.
That’s the sort of majnoon behavior we expect from idiots like me or daredevil journos like Nir Rosen and not a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School’s Center for International Security Law.
Swift, you see, is one of our nation’s preeminent experts on terrorist movements, and as a nation it would’ve been quite a loss had he ended up as a hostage of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Let me clack out his CV: A.B. in Government and History from Dartmouth College, M.St. in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, J.D. from Georgetown University and Ph.D in Politics & International Studies that was also earned at the University of Cambridge.
Most amazing was that he picked up his law degree and doctorate at the same time while shuttling between universities on different continents. Which suggests to me that he’s not Dr Swift but rather Dr Who and that he tends to teleport between world capitals – and dimensions – in a TARDIS. He insists, however, that he’s not the Time Lord, even if they both have the habit of vanquishing the foes of civilization and dashing about to aid those in need.
In the case of Dr Swift, most of them apparently are Yemeni.
Before jetting off to Arabia, Swift toiled at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), where they targeted terrorists, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Freedom House. He also worked at the Center for Strategic & International Studies as an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Last year I created something of a stir by asking Swift if he’d ever been forced to pull a jambiya during a Yemeni blood feud. I also might’ve asked if he’d ever chewed qat, Yemen’s narcotic of choice.
He hasn’t committed either trespass, although I suspect that many of my readers have. Because I work 100 hour weeks, I live vicariously off of your sins. So please tell me what it’s like to ingest qat. I suspect it’s like slurping large amounts of grain alcohol and Copenhagen.
I’ve divided this extended telephone interview into two parts. Today, we’re talking about the many rebellions roiling Yemen, the rise of AQAP, the effect the Arab Spring has had on the impoverished nation and the efficacy of American drone strikes.
Tomorrow night we’ll discuss Yemen’s looming ecological and economic collapse, the size and structure of AQAP and their foreign fighter contingent and, yes, I pretty much repeated my questions about knife-fighting and experimental qat use.
Full disclosure: I have four jambiya daggers nailed to the wall next to this very desk, between a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting poster from World War I and seven volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I’m a great admirer of Yemen’s warriors. I’m also something of a fan of Dr. Swift.
Carl Prine: Welcome home, Christopher! Let’s do this thing. By the way, when did you get back?
Christopher Swift: I got back late Sunday night.
Carl Prine: Could you explain to people what Yemen looks like now? We get very jumbled images of it in the press. What’s the situation on the ground?
Christopher Swift: The situation on the ground before the Gulf Coordination Council agreement – which installed a national unity government and a new president on a temporary basis – saw Yemen involved in three internal conflicts.
The first conflict was the Houthi rebellion in the north. The Zaidiyyah Shia are more like the Sunnis than other Shia, but they’re still Shia and they see themselves as being different from the rest of Yemen. They’re looking for more autonomy.
In the south, you have a secessionist movement. Those folks are basically saying that the north has been against them since unification in 1990 and they were abusing them a lot since the 1994 civil war. They think that they can do better on their own. They believe that they were better off alone in the 1970s and 1980s when they were supported by the Soviet Union, so they want to go back to the good old days.
And the third insurrection, the third source of major instability in Yemen, was, of course, AQAP – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – and its subsidiary Ansar al-Shariah.
Throw on the Arab Spring on top of all that and you have a bunch of different actors all vying for as much of the pie as they could possibly get.
Now, the problem with Yemen is that there’s not a whole lotta pie.
Carl Prine: Exactly.
Christopher Swift: There aren’t a lot of chances for generating more revenue. There’s no more patronage or resources to be distributed.
So, during the transitional period the Houthis are sitting atop their accomplishments.
Al Harak is trying to hold onto whatever advantage it can gain, preserving the option of secession. Some are using the threat of secession to get what they can from the central government, but others truly want to secede, so there’s a division within that organization.
So what we’ve seen since the start of the Arab Spring is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP – has used all these circumstances in order to leverage its abilities to bring as many people in from the outside as it possibly could to improve on what they’ve done locally and expand.
Carl Prine: Yeah, and they’ve been successful.
Christopher Swift: They’re essentially running two small provinces in the south. They’ve infiltrated an additional 10 provinces, including each of the provinces I was in.
Carl Prine: You did something while you were there that I thought was interesting. You did a small case study you called “Between Terrorists and Insurgents.” I found it fascinating. I guess that I didn’t realize that AQAP was divided in so many ways. I always assumed that all the elements of AQAP were working more in concert with each other, that a lot of the terror acts that they’ve orchestrated in the capital and some of the things that we’ve seen, such as the very dramatic bombings, assassination attempts and things like that, organically came out of a larger strategy.
I thought that they were using all elements in a two-part strategy but that there were no disagreements internally over those. But after reading your case study, I began to think, “Gosh, maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe there’s a tension within AQAP between the two major constituents of it – the Saudi/foreign fighter wing and the larger, organic Yemeni element.” Maybe I was wrong because they seem to have different ideas about their path to power.
Christopher Swift: They do. But let me break that down because we have a tendency to look at Al Qaeda or whoever looks to be affiliated with or collaborating with it as some unitary entity because they’re all part of a broader Salafi movement.
But we have to remember that just because they share the same ideology and use similar tactics and espouse the same rhetoric and do all of that, that there still are personality differences. There are differences tied to national origin. And there are what I like to call “time, place and manner differences.”
You know – different people pursue different priorities and they’ll use different techniques under different circumstances. So let’s look at AQAP. There are basically four elements to it.
The first is the old Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. These were the Yemeni chaps who were aligned with Al Qaeda before Al Qaeda was Al Qaeda. These were the people who knew bin Laden, who had fought jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and came back to Yemen. But these guys were sometimes with bin Laden and sometimes with the Yemeni security services, depending on where they could get the better deal. And the Yemeni government embraced them and used them to beat up on the socialist secessionist in the south during the 1994 war.
Carl Prine: Exactly.
Christopher Swift: So that’s one faction. Another faction is the younger guys. These guys are 35 to 40 and they’re now running AQAP. They left Yemen and didn’t participate in the Soviet war in Afghanistan but joined the Al Qaeda movement in Afghanistan while the Taliban were still in control of the country.
These guys are like Nasser al-Wuhayshi. He runs AQAP. These are the folks who have basically come up in the global jihad and then came back home to where they’re originally from. So that’s the second faction, and these guys are mostly Yemenis.
The third faction are Saudis. They were acting against the Saudi regime in Saudi Arabia. Some of them also were active in Iraq. These guys were basically hounded out of Saudi Arabia and came down to Yemen to seek refuge. This is the group that merged with Wuhayshi in 2009 and formed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
And the fourth faction are essentially the guys who a lot of people think are a separate organization, Ansar al-Sharia. These guys are local tribal actors. Some were affiliated with the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. Some were just opportunists. But they’re local tribal actors who have decided that they can get a better piece of the patronage pie by signing up with Al Qaeda.
Now, in doing so some of these guys also have drunk the ideological Kool Aid, so they now believe in the global jihad and they now espouse the Hadith of an army of 12,000 coming out of Yemen and going all the way to Jerusalem. They’re in that mode, but they come from a different origin.
Because each of these groups – each of these four elements within AQAP – has a different perspective on jihad, a different background, and a slightly different set of priorities even if the objectives are the same in the end, you get a different flavor, a different approach.
So in the case of the suicide bombing in Sana’a, there’s evidence to suggest that there’s part of AQAP that’s really interested in engaging in attritional kinds of attacks that we associate with a full-on, organized insurgency, like we’ve seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Carl Prine: Yeah, especially because AQAP has been so successful.
Christopher Swift: Yeah, exactly!
Carl Prine: If not in Afghanistan, then certainly in Yemen.
Christopher Swift: They have been successful. So their goal there is to go after the security services, right? They’re undermining the ability of the regime to protect itself and secure its territory.
There’s another element within AQAP that’s really sucked into the whole global jihadi ethos. These people see their struggle as being more ethical than practical. And because it’s more ethical they worry about killing the masses and alienating soldiers they might otherwise co-opt. They really want to target members of the “apostate regime” that’s allied either with the Saudis or the United States. So their focus is on high-profile political targets or symbolic regime targets.
Carl Prine: And the people who comprise their core audience might not even be people who reside in Yemen. They’re people around the world.
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right.
Carl Prine: Whether they’re shaking down these people for donations or volunteers or whatever, they’re trying as much to influence events in other countries at the same time.
Christopher Swift: It goes to the whole notion of whether AQAP is an organization that’s internally-focused or an organization that’s externally-focused. Is their priority the near-enemy or the far-enemy?
Carl Prine: Yeah.
Christopher Swift: For the moment, the answer is “both.” But there are elements within AQAP that are much more interested in the far-enemy part of it. They want to provoke the United States into a more and more militarized response in Yemen.
And then there are those folks, including Nassar al-Wuhayshi, who are interested in getting as much of Yemen as they possibly can, setting up sanctuaries, setting up camps, recruiting the local population and building and governing the way the Taliban build and govern.
That’s the model he saw in Afghanistan and he realized that this model works. He realizes that the bin Laden pie-in-the-sky model is very difficult to operationalize and sustain over time and so he’s more reluctant to engage in that sort of activity. Or, at least, that’s what my local sources seemed to indicate while I was there.
Carl Prine: So that gets us into how we think about this in the United States. When we hear from Britain, we get these very dire warnings about Yemen. Of course, Britain has the largest expatriate population of Yemenis so that’s not necessarily crazy, for the UK to be so concerned about what happens there. They know that more are likely to come there as refugees in the event it all falls apart.
At the same time, however, you get this feeling out of Washington DC that a lot of money and a lot more contractors are rushing into Yemen. So far, no boots on the ground from the U.S., although there might be more advisers, but there seems to be a lot of action around Yemen. And the Yemeni government – such as it is – keeps saying that, well, the Arab Spring stuff has died down so we’re going to target Al Qaeda and other groups.
How much of this description is true and how much should we be skeptical about it?
Christopher Swift: I can tell you who I saw when I was there. And who was not from there. I saw a couple of people from the embassy on a flight from Sana’a to Aden. I saw a couple people from the U.S. military who were there to pick up the people from the embassy. I saw a fair number of European humanitarian relief organizations – a small number. The presence is there but they’re moving in food and blankets and doing water and irrigation projects. That sort of thing.
What I did not see was a large contractor presence. In fact, I didn’t see any contractors there. The people in the security domain I saw were security officers for humanitarian groups like the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Society.
So I can’t tell you how much engagement there is from the contractor side of things. What I can tell you is that the current government in Yemen is involved in some things that are very constructive and some things that might be destructive in the long run.
The constructive things are efforts to root out some of the corruption and factionalism that was in the armed forces and really regularize the force. They’ve done that by sidelining a couple of generals and other brigade commanders who have been problematic in the past.
They’ve also put their forces in the field to fight Al Qaeda in the south. There’s nothing quite like contact with the enemy to focus their attention on their priorities.
The security services have a Soviet-style distribution of power. During the 1990s, there was a lot of concern about Islamists and Al Qaeda infiltration of the political security organizations, sort of like the Yemeni version of the FBI. Over time, the Bush administration encouraged the Yemeni government to stop putting so much effort and resources into the PSO and to set up a new agency called the “National Security Bureau.”
The National Security Bureau was used by the former regime to basically spy on the protest movement in Yemen rather than to go after Al Qaeda.
Carl Prine: Well, you had the infrastructure there for that, right?
Christopher Swift: Yeah, and you’ve got a big internal problem with the NSB now, for most Yemenis. The current generation of Yemeni youth are politically active and are politically aware. They have a strong interest in establishing something that looks like a civil state in a society that’s never really had one, and the NSB is anathema.
So one of the things that they decided to do while I was there was to downgrade the NSB and put it back under the PSO. Well, that’s moving the boxes around on the ledger a bit. It deals with some of the political concerns but it doesn’t deal with whether Al Qaeda or people who are sympathetic to Al Qaeda have infiltrated the PSO.
In Sana’a, that’s not so much of a concern. But in a city like Aden? The local tribal officials there, the local security officials, the military officials and others told me in no uncertain terms that both the army and the PSO are highly infiltrated in Aden and that they, themselves, don’t know – unless they know through their tribal network or their political networks – whose equities are invested in which ways.
That gives you a sense of how complicated it is for the Yemenis. Not, what role the United States is playing in that? I couldn’t even begin to tell you.
Carl Prine: Well, we know some things. Last month, we heard about the three contractors who got wounded while training Yemen’s coast guard. To me, that was the buried lede because I had no idea that Yemen had a functioning coast guard.
Christopher Swift: They do, in fact, have a coast guard and part of the reason is why we’re also so interested in their coast guard. It’s because there’s so much boat traffic from coastal Yemen. Part of Yemen is on the Gulf of Aden and part of Yemen is on the Red Sea — and they have amazing seafood, by the way.
There’s a lot of traffic between various ports and the Horn of Africa.
Carl Prine: Sure.
If you look at those ports and then look at the caravan routes that run from those ports, if you overlay the distribution of where the foreign fighter terrorist activity is in Yemen, it’s along those port and caravan routes.
Carl Prine: I want to say that it’s like 220 miles or so between Yemen and Somalia.
Christopher Swift: That’s right. I didn’t believe this before I went and interviewed people who had been in the training camps, people who had interviewed Al Qaeda themselves, people who go to Al Qaeda to do hostage and prisoner release – after speaking to those people they overwhelmingly said that majority of the foreign fighters, upwards of 50 percent, are Somali. That shouldn’t be a surprise.
One of the things I asked was about Al Shabaab – is it a Somali movement that pretends to be a global jihad movement or whether it really was part of Al Qaeda? Are they contributing to the global jihad or are they trying to expropriate external resources and bring them into a local conflict?
Well, Al Shabaab is doing mostly the latter, but there’s a wing within the Islamist movement inside Somalia that has said, “Somalia is not really what this is all about. We’ve got to go global, and the way we go global is to go to Yemen.” And that’s what’s happening. Somalis are, in fact, migrating to Yemen. They’re signing up with AQAP. And they’re taking up the fight.
One of the things I was told while I was there was that AQAP is using the Somalis as shock troops for some of its operations in Zinjibar because they have better unit cohesion and they’re more intense about the fighting than some of the other foreign fighters.
Carl Prine: Well, yeah, because they’ve been fighting in Somalia. They’re not a bunch of Saudi dilettantes who just show up.
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right.
Carl Prine: These Somalis have blood on their hands. They’ve fired weapons before. We saw the same thing in Iraq. You might use the Saudis as VBIED drivers but you’d never use the Saudis to engage directly in a firefight with American forces. A Saudi is worthless after anything lasting more than half of a second.
Christopher Swift: There’s even some evidence that some Jordanians are flowing in.
Carl Prine: Really?
Christopher Swift: From the north. That’s the latest thing. I heard that from local sources and European sources who have been tracking these things.
Carl Prine: I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by that. The only thing I would’ve assumed is that the guys from Zarqawi might’ve been drawn more to the conflict in Syria.
Christopher Swift: Traction. Traction is the problem. They don’t seem to be getting much in the way of local traction in Syria because the Free Syrian Army is occupying the political space that Al Qaeda would like to occupy.
Carl Prine: Yeah, I hear the same things out of Syria. And that the Syrians are genuinely not interested in a lot of the Salafi rhetoric. They’re just not.
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right. To the extent that anyone is gaining any traction within Syria – this is what I’ve heard – is when they’re signing up with national Ikhwani movements. They’re the Muslim Brotherhood types, rather than the Salafi/ jihadi types.
Remember, many of these guys might’ve come out of the same movement in the 1920s in Egypt or they may espouse similar rhetoric, but by and large Ikhwani groups and Salafi groups don’t work very well together because they have a totally different set of political objectives.
Carl Prine: Yeah.
Christopher Swift: One tends to be very territorialized. They want to own and run the place where they’re from. The other tends to be very globalized and preoccupied with the far-enemy. Their historical grievances and resentments have been externalized and universalized to an extent that’s really not tangible.
Carl Prine: Although when reading your case study, I was surprised to see that same sort of tension going on within Yemen in general and AQAP specifically. I didn’t realize that AQAP was a microcosm for that.
You know, all these franchised operations have a globalized revolt that’s often tacked onto local issues. But with Yemen the mix looks a lot stranger than some of the other ones. For example, I’m not getting the same feel from AQIM. There, I think the franchising really is only a branding exercise. I don’t believe that they’re all that sincere about global revolution. And yet AQAP has tried to do some things. So it’s a little different.
Christopher Swift: AQAP sees itself as the successor to Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership. They very consciously see themselves as the successor to all that, so they want to preserve their capacity to operate globally. That’s why they accommodated Anwar al-Awlaki, even though he really wasn’t one of them. That’s why they engaged in some of the reprisal operations, such as the attempted bombing of Flight 253 over Detroit.
Carl Prine: Yeah, the underwear bomber.
Christopher Swift: They’ve engaged in some of that but if you look at where they’re storing up the treasure and where they’re making their investments, it’s really been on deepening their relationships within Yemeni society.
These guys have learned two very important things from Iraq and Afghanistan. From Afghanistan, they learned that they really can’t operate unless the locals want them to operate. So, to the extent that the Taliban were able to shelter and protect them, they had a tremendous amount of capacity and flexibility to do what they wanted to do in terms of pursuing their agenda.
From Iraq, they learned that you can’t just walk up and tell people what to do. Nor can you walk up to a place and tell the local sheikh that you’re going to be marrying his daughters off to your fighters.
Carl Prine: That’s the old foco dilemma, right? I mean, Che Guevara ran into the same problem. You can’t just show up and jump-start a revolution.
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly the situation. And Al Qaeda purists, the jihadi purists, are really operating in the Che Guevara mold. Guys like Nasser al-Wuhayshi are operating in the mold of Mao Tse-Tung or Gen. Giap.
They’re interested in seizing and holding territory and building slowly. The way you do that is by co-opting local tribes, using economic inducements, attempting to govern in those places where you can govern and by adopting an attritional strategy that targets your adversary’s armed forces and their ability to resist rather than just the symbolic targets.
Carl Prine: Although they’re doing both. The assassination attempt, for example, wouldn’t have helped them materially much in their attrition strategy.
Christopher Swift: That’s right.
Carl Prine: And yet, at the same time, it was daring. It was complex because it occurred during the day and piggybacked on a protest along 70 Meter Road. There were a lot of things going on and they knew the cameras were going to be there and that it was going to get the splash that they wanted.
That’s why I think it’s so interesting – because they’re doing those sorts of operations and the reprisal, global things like the underwear bombing and other stuff.
Christopher Swift: If you look at the three phases of insurgency, straight-up Mao, terrorism and provocation is the first phase. That’s when you’re weakest. Territorial consolidation and the creation of a guerrilla army is the second phase. And full-on conventional warfare and the seizure of the apparatus of the state is the third phase.
At no point when you move from the second to the third phase do you abandon any of the techniques that you used in the first phase. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we’ll continue to see provocation and reprisal-style operations and terrorist-style operations. We’ll see a blending of attrition with symbolic violence.
But the trick here is determining where is the priority. Where’s the organization’s priority? And in the case of Yemen, it seems to be trending away from just provocation and terrorism and much more toward the sustained, locally-grounded insurgency like we’ve seen in other places. And that reflects the lessons learned in Afghanistan and mirrors how the Taliban operated; and the lessons learned in Iraq and seeing how al-Zarqawi did it exactly the wrong way by managing to alienate the local populations.
Carl Prine: OK, so how does the United States address this? I ask this because much of what we talk about in Yemen is that which we know the least – the drone program.
Christopher Swift: Right. There’s been a number of reports – Jeremy Scahill from The Nation has done a lot of reporting on the drones. While I was in Yemen there was a reporter there from the Washington Post who was down in the south.
So Scahill from The Nation and the Washington Post have down a series of interviews with victims of the drone strikes, and local officials and others who have projected a very negative view of the drone program.
I heard a lot of concern from some elements of the Yemeni population about the nature and extent of U.S. involvement in Yemen — mostly from Islamists and Salafists I interviewed but also from others.
One of the things that I didn’t hear, however, is this connection between drone strikes on the one hand and Al Qaeda recruiting on the other.
Carl Prine: We’ve seen that debate in Pakistan. There seems to be a correlation, if not a direct causation, between a number of hits on the villages in FATA and growing numbers of people willing to fight for the Taliban because their village got smacked.
Christopher Swift: We see it in Pakistan and I think that it’s very well documented in Pakistan.
In Yemen, I interviewed more than 40 people from 14 provinces. Over half of that sample size, about two-thirds of that sample size, were either Islamists – members of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists, who were either in politics or not in politics and were much more conservative, Saudi-style Muslims, and also local tribal leaders who lived in the areas where Al Qaeda currently is operating.
Of that entire sample, 40-plus people, four people – a total of four – opposed U.S. drone operations.
Carl Prine: Really?
Christopher Swift: And none of them opposed it on the basis of “U.S. drone strikes help Al Qaeda recruit.”
And when I’d ask the question — “What would you do to change U.S. drone policy? – two of those four said, “If you target only senior Al Qaeda leadership and there are no civilian casualties, we have no problems with drones. We’d prefer that the Yemeni government were flying the drones, not the U.S. government.”
That’s where Yemeni people seem to be really hung up on the drone policy. It’s the U.S. doing this rather than Yemen. But the linkage between drone strikes on the one hand and Al Qaeda recruitment on the other, nobody drew that linkage. And that included the people who were not willing to tolerate drone strikes under any possible condition.
Carl Prine: Is it because we’ve been better at it in Yemen? Because we don’t have as much of the collateral damage that we’ve had other places?
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right. Several people told me – again, looking at the broader sample and especially when looking at tribal leaders as opposed to the political party types or the religious leaders – if this was 2009 or early 2010, when we had a lot of collateral damage, there would be no space, no political space, in Yemen for drone strikes. We’d have a Pakistan-style situation.
But because you’ve been very precise, because you’ve caused so little collateral damage from 2011 forward, we support this. And we support this for two reasons – 1) our tribal systems are sort of deadlocked and can’t function the way they’re supposed to, to get rid of these guys. And, 2) the Yemeni government, we don’t necessarily know if we can trust them. We don’t know if a particular brigade commander is cutting a deal with Al Qaeda or if he’s really helping us fight them.
So when the drones come and take out the leadership and Al Qaeda scatters, that benefits us at a local level. We’d prefer that Yemenis be doing this rather than Americans. We really don’t like the idea of the United States having a large footprint in Yemen. We very much resist that idea, but right now, from a very practical perspective, the local tribal leaders in the areas where Al Qaeda is most active don’t have a problem with the drone strikes as long as we target senior leadership and there are no civilian casualties.
Carl Prine: I think that mostly we’ve been targeting foreign fighters anyway, haven’t we?
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right.
Carl Prine: The one that we know about the best is the one on Anwar al-Awlaki.
Christopher Swift: That’s right. And, look, the thing we have to be very careful about is reading in our own political debates. The debate going on in Washington is an extremely important debate.
As a lawyer I tend to be a little more pro-drone because I think that they’re more proportional; they’re more targeted; and under the Geneva Conventions there’s a much stronger case for using this kind of violence as long as you have national government support. Drones are immensely superior to flying a bunch of B-52s dropping iron bombs over these places.
But as a political scientist I worry about the consequences of fighting a war that’s run on remote control amidst societies we tend not to understand very well.
Carl Prine: Yeah!
Christopher Swift: Well, I can make the argument either way.
Carl Prine: My concern is that I’m not sure we’ve heard a very good argument about the efficacy of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We simply don’t have all the information. But if we listen to Taliban leaders, and when I listen to the Pakistani media, I’m surprised that in our own American debate we don’t take their perceptions into consideration.
It actually might be driving some of the insurgencies. The net benefit might not be coming out, even though we can point to the fact that we’re killing Al Qaeda operatives. Is that helping us win the larger war? I’m not so sure.
Christopher Swift: That’s a real possibility in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I haven’t done that research. What I can tell you from Yemen, especially from southern Yemen, is that no one is drawing this relationship, this correlative or causational relationship between drone strikes, on the one hand, and Al Qaeda recruitment on the other.
Even the people who are militantly opposed to the drones under all circumstances didn’t draw that correlation. They said that the way Al Qaeda is recruiting is through economic inducement. It’s a car. It’s a rifle. It’s a $400 per month salary. It’s money for qat. It’s not a sense that the United States is coming in to take over everything.
What we’re doing in Washington DC is using Al Qaeda’s ex post facto justification as the basis for the recruiting at the local level. That doesn’t mean that people don’t sign up and believe it after the fact. But it doesn’t seem to be the driver. The drivers for recruiting seem to be status-based and income-based.
Carl Prine: Well, then that gets to the other question. What are drones doing to curtail any of that? When you’re looking at metrics, I’m looking at the number of drone strikes and I’m seeing the number of claimed Al Qaeda senior leaders who have been killed in AQAP and at the same time I’m watching AQAP overrun a number of police stations.
So it seems to me that the attrition strategy, that Maoist strategy of staged revolution within Yemen, seems to be working regardless of our drone strikes.
Christopher Swift: This is the local perspective based on my interviews with local security services, officials and on the ground people who have been to visit Al Qaeda and the tribal leaders.
Drones constrain their operations and they disrupt. They see this as being very valuable because their tribal networks right now don’t have the capacity — or they’re sort of hemmed in by their own tribal rules – to take the fight to them in the way that they would like.
Now, that’s starting to change. The Yemeni armed forces are down there with five brigades. They’re much more aggressive then they’ve been in the past. They’re starting to turn the tide in Zinjibar. You can query whether they’ll have the resources to finish the war by themselves, let alone up in the mountains.
Carl Prine: But aren’t they fairly infiltrated as well?
Christopher Swift: Well, the security services seem to be more infiltrated than the army. That’s the general word on the street. But that is a major concern. I think that of the five brigades that are down there, I was told that three were solid, one was questionable and the other was aligned with whomever is winning.
Carl Prine: Say what you want about Yemen, but we’d love to have that kind of operational capacity with the ANA right now in Afghanistan. If we could say right now that three-fifths of the Afghan army were actually in the field operating on their own we’d dance a jig.
Christopher Swift: I interviewed a bunch of young Yemeni officers when I was there, including a guy who survived the bombing. These guys are all trained. When they finish staff college, they go to Russia for a couple of years. They get training there. The majority of their kit is Russian. They operate on a motor rifle company style or an armored brigade style. So they have the capacity. They might not have all the training or the money or they’re not at the level we might hope that they would be, but from an institutional standpoint people show up, they salute and they line up and generally do what they’re told.
The real problem is when you look at the tribal structure. This is especially true in southern and central Yemen, outside the urban areas. The tribal leaders in these areas are used to running the show themselves.
Carl Prine: Sure they are.
Christopher Swift: They don’t see the Al Qaeda fight as their fight unless the tribal equities are in play. Now, if Al Qaeda comes in and starts interfering with their resources are begins to offend them by marrying their young women without their permission or they start abducting people and things like that, then there’s going to be a problem.
Absent those sorts of provocations that we saw in Iraq, the general feeling of the tribal leaders is that, “We should stay neutral because we’re here and we have to deal with the reality on the ground and it’s really the government’s job to come in and take care of this.”
Now, in the places where tribal leaders have reoriented and said, “No, no, no. Neutrality isn’t going to work out for us. We actually have to take the fight to Al Qaeda.” They did it because their equities were offended. Or they realized that if they didn’t do this, they were going to be surrounded, isolated and eventually co-opted.
So there is a movement within Yemen’s tribal leadership, or within some aspects of Yemen’s tribal leadership, to take responsibility at the local level. There are coordinating committees for that.
So, getting back to the question of what the United States can do, what we can do is help those committees. Help them with support. We don’t need to go in and train them. We don’t need to go in and command them. But this could help get them going and it can give them the tools they need to do the job in their own villages. And they’re willing to do it.
The question is whether someone will have their back when Al Qaeda comes back to get them again. Is someone going to help them with the ammunition if it runs dry? Is someone going to give them air cover so that they can deal with artillery and mortars and all the rest that Al Qaeda has been able to seize from the Yemeni military bases around the country?
With that kind of support, I think that some of these people in some of these districts are ready to stand up. But they’re not ready to stand up if it’s a U.S.-led operation. That’s why while the U.S. should be involved, it should be involved in a manner that lets the Yemeni government take credit for everything.
Carl Prine: It sounds that you would advise for us to be as quietly involved as possible.
Christopher Swift: That’s exactly right. And the drones play a role in isolating, containing and eliminating the leadership, which is very, very valuable, but it doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve got something on the ground, boots on the ground.
Those can’t be our boots. But they can’t be exclusively Yemeni government boots because not all the tribes trust Yemen’s government, especially in the south and especially because of good historical reasons.
But to the extent that we can play a facilitating and enabling role in the south, by getting involved with the popular committees and sitting at the table with the Yemeni armed forces, we can start doing some of that relationship management that they need to do for the political transition. And we also can give local leaders in local communities the tools they need to take control.
Sometimes that’s going to mean an irrigation system. Sometimes it’s going to mean a well. In some districts, it’s going to mean food, food and food. We can provide all of those things, but we need to do it by and through the Yemenis to the extent that we can and avoid taking credit for it.
Carl Prine: But why us? The UN is extremely active in Yemen. I’d have to go look at the most recent figures, but the UN already feeds a great man Yemenis. Is there any possibility of using the international aid that’s already flowing into Yemen to support those projects? Could they be tailored more to serve our interests than perhaps they have been?
Christopher Swift: I agree that they could. These kinds of organizations – the UN, the Danish Refugee Council and others are seen as neutrals. The people they serve tend to be displaced. There’s something like 100,000 people from Abyan Province who are currently running around in Aden.
I was in Aden. And the way to get around Aden at night because of the level of Al Qaeda infiltration of both the security services and the general population is to go from sheikh to sheikh under their cover.
Carl Prine: Yeah. You’re a protected guest. For right now. They hand you off.
Christopher Swift: Exactly. You’re a guest of a powerful sheikh who has many rifles. We’d ride through the streets in these trucks, in technicals or Humvees or whatever the sheikh had, and the kids on the sides of the street would see a truck full of fighters, with guns, driving quickly through the streets and the refugee kids would point and say, “Al Qaeda! Al Qaeda! Al Qaeda!”
You could hear it as you were driving by. That’s how bad the refugee problem is there. But to the extent that the international organizations are involved, they’re providing food and blankets and stuff like that to a refugee population that’s been displaced.
I spoke to the German who is in charge of the humanitarian operations for the German Embassy there, and she told me that they can’t go take a look at their water well and irrigation projects anymore because of the threat of being kidnapped in the districts where they’ve done that.
The threat of kidnapping no longer is that the tribe will kidnap you and ransom you in order to bring in economic resources, which they’ll then pay out as patronage to their members. The threat is that they’ll kidnap you and sell you to Al Qaeda and then Al Qaeda will put you in a YouTube video.
That shift in the dynamic shows the extent to which Al Qaeda has been able to infiltrate, co-opt and make the tribal networks either neutral or favorable in some districts.
Carl Prine: Well, it’s also money. You see that people are now worth more as hostages for beheading videos than as aid providers. They’re trafficked as commodities.
Christopher Swift: And that goes back to the whole issue of recruitment in Yemen. It’s not driven by hatred of the United States. It’s not driven by a reaction to drones. It’s not driven by ideology or religion. It’s economic inducement.
Al Qaeda fighters who are recruited are paid. And I have this from multiple sources, all of whom would be more than happy to sell one another up the river because they disagree with each other politically. They say that they get a car, rifle and $400 per month.
Half of Yemen lives on less than $2 per day, so $400 per month is a fortune, especially in some of these areas where malnutrition is off the scale. People are living on 800 to 900 calories per day.
So we can’t solve the problem through drones. We can’t solve the problem with military force. We can’t solve the problem with development. We can’t solve the problem by pumping money into the place.
We need to do all of these things and we need to do them from the bottom up rather than the top down. Or, at least, we must do it in such a way that we bring people who are local decision makers to gather with the National Transitional Government to work together and do the state formation activities that they just haven’t been doing for the last 33 years.
Tomorrow: Knife fighting (or not), qat-chewing (or not) and the collapse of Yemeni society (or not).