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The Drone Doctrine In Yemen – Analysis

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By Anirudh Sivaram and Dr. Theodore Karasik


The American policy of employing Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, is eliciting mixed responses from various international actors. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are amongst the most vocal critics of the policy, publically raising questions both over the legality and the non-discretionary use of drones in the Middle East. Individual governments have criticized the violation of sovereignty that comes from drone use. Pakistan’s foreign ministry noted that “[drone] attacks are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations.” The policy however remains popular with the U.S. government, which allows drones to gather intelligence on and eliminate dangerous terrorist leaders, while not having to commit soldiers to combat. The two regions where America prominently employs drones are Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) and Yemen, the latter of which shall be discussed in depth. American drones in Yemen primarily target Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, and are managed and controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). While American drone use in Yemen dates back to 2000, the present intensity and frequency of drone operations in Yemen since March 2012, is unprecedented.

The Case for Drones


The drone policy has clear benefits, which are relevant considerations in light of the new American military doctrine. Unlike the Bush administration that supported boots on the ground, the Obama administration has relied far more heavily on strategic technology. The Obama doctrine is a product of various forces, most notably the fiscal indiscipline of past governments. Given the lack of public support for boots on the ground, technology provides the thrust to military efforts overseas. As an offensive weapon, drones have proven record of success in Yemen. Responsible for eliminating many of AQAP’s top leaders (notable casualties including Fahd al Quso, Anwar al Awlaki and numerous other Al Qaeda and Islamist militants in the region), it is alleged that the central spine of Al Qaeda is moving from the besieged AfPak to Yemen. AQAP holds that the Abyan Governorate in Yemen is an “Islamic Emirate” and many on-ground efforts, including the construction of madrassas have already taken place in Abyan.

The geographic proximity of Yemen to Somalia makes it a precarious hub for terrorist activity. Al Shabaab, the Somali based cell of Al Qaeda has grown closer to AQAP over the last 12 months, with the organization merging in February 2012. Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage (Ali Dhere) went as far as to say, “We (Al Shabaab) are the branch of AQAP in Somalia.” It is thought that militants from Somalia are crossing borders and fighting with Ansar al Sharia and AQAP; Yemeni Security Forces have arrested Somalis who were aiding AQAP operations in Yemen. Al Shabaab also maintains a Kiswahili propaganda magazine that is similar in structure and function to AQAP’s “Inspire”. The merger indicates the squeeze that both organizations are feeling in their respective “home territories” of Somalia and AfPak respectively, with Al Shabaab getting pressed by and Al Qaeda by American drone attacks. Al Shabaab also faces the threat of disintegration; discord between Al Shabaab’s spiritual leader Hassan Dahir Ayews, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and former Emir of Al Shabaab Moktar Ali Zubeyr,(known as Godane) threaten to atomize Al Shabaab. It has been alleged that Godane and militants loyal to him may end up crossing the Gulf of Aden and finding a safe haven in Yemen from which they can continue their operations in the region.

The looming possibility of Yemen becoming the locus for terrorist operations highlights the need to continue, possibly even accelerate, the use of drones in Yemen. Despite AQAP’s fortification of its presence in Yemen in recent months, the group’s reach is still limited mostly to the Abyan Governorate. Given this dynamic, drones offer a lethal and efficacious choice of weaponry. Over 200 militants have been killed in drone strikes in 2012, including prominent leaders such as Hadaar al-Homaiqani, Nasser al-Thafry [aka Zafari] and leading Ansar al Sharia militant Mohammed al-Sabri. Reports from inside the country also claim that U.S. airstrikes have hit military targets, including a weapons storage facility near Jaar in southern Yemen. U.S. strikes also appear to be occasionally coordinated with Yemeni military advances on al-Qaeda positions in the south. A plausible explanation for the migration of Al Qaeda to Yemen could be the increased use of drones in AfPak, with reports claiming that over 2000 militants and alleged militants have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. Given AQAP’s desire to expand outside Yemen after consolidating its position it is essential that we prevent Yemen from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda operations. To get as close as possible to achieving that aim, it is necessary to use drone strikes that take out major AQAP leaders and destroy AQAP infrastructure.

The drone policy also acts as a rearguard against the internal dissent from tribesmen, militants and the general public directed at Yemeni President Abd al-Hadi. The U.S. shares a close relationship with the Yemeni government. It seems that the U.S. needs to maintain al-Hadi as a ally. Clearly, it seems, that al-Hadi needs the U.S. to fill the void that exists from inadequate domestic and international support. This mutualistic relationship may explain the increase in targeted killings in Yemen since al-Hadi took over power. Therefore, while the U.S. has its own incentives to operate drones in Yemen, eliminating key AQAP leaders helps reduce domestic opposition to al-Hadi, a crucial American foreign policy interest.


Drones are also important tools of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in Yemen. The terrain of Southern Yemen is amongst the most inhospitable in the Middle East, with the preponderance of drone strikes (with the exception of Zinjbar) occurring at altitudes that above 1000m above sea level. The rugged and mountainous terrain of Yemen makes it difficult to maintain a sustained human presence on the ground for ISR purposes, a difficulty exacerbated by the incline of the slopes. In addition to the challenging terrain of south Yemen, persistent conflict between tribal leaders, the Yemeni military and AQAP in the Abyan Governorate poses a great security threat to any on-ground intelligence officials. Furthermore, there are doubts over the accuracy of Yemeni intelligence; in past experiences, drone strikes have been used manipulatively to eliminate opponents of the regime based on Yemeni intelligence. For instance, a drone strike on May 25, 2010, killed six people, including Jabir Shabwani, the deputy governor of Yemen’s central Ma’arib province. The strong jealousy and enmity that exists within the Yemeni government makes it worthwhile to have a secondary source of information – a gap that is filled by drones.

Drones also present a significant advantage both in terms of costs and in terms of personnel for ISR purposes. It is important to remember that a Predator costs $4.5 million and presents little to no risk to personnel while a F-22 Raptor fighter jet approaches $150 million and requires an ample amount of technical experience. The lowered costs of drones, which has seen an increase in Pentagon spending on them, indicate that they remain both the weapon and ISR tool of choice for the Obama administration.

When Drones Go Wrong

A lot of the criticism of the drone policy centers around winning the battle for hearts and minds on the ground. Drones have been responsible for significant collateral damage both in Yemen and AfPak, with cumulatively over 300 confirmed civilian casualties from botched strikes. Especially in Yemen, the civilians have a string endearment to AQAP and Ansar-al-Shariah, which is reflected in the significant growth in AQAP membership to over 700 members. Drones are dangerous because they polarize opinion on Al Hadi’s government. Because of the role Ansar al-Sharia has played in soothing the humanitarian crisis in South of Yemen, civilians respect them as administrators of the area, transforming AQAP to a people’s organization in the process. Therefore, AQAP casualties help fuel vitriolic anti-America rhetoric. Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group suggests that, “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.” In 2012 alone, the U.S. has killed 132 militants in Yemen, a staggering 50 more than the number killed in 2011, and more than quadruple the number of militants assassinated between 2008 and 2010; this ramped-up targeted killing program foments hostility towards the U.S. and Al Hadi’s government.

The drone policy has also severely displaced many Yemenis within the country. Former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine believes that the impact of drones is vastly underrated, going as far as to suggest that the indiscriminate reliance on drones in Yemen is stumbling block to support from Yemeni civilians. Exacerbating the rage caused by the targeted killings themselves is the climate of fear that pervades the use of; drones are known for distinctive, clearly audible buzzing sound much akin to that the buzzing of a bee. Therefore, drone use, even for ISR purposes, can be remarkably disruptive with Yemeni civilians on the ground viewing drones as an attack on their sovereignty and their ability live peacefully within their country. Groups like AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia feed into the insecurity of Yemeni civilians and tribesmen, exploiting the presence of drones to galvanize their anti-American rhetoric, and weaken support for al-Hadi’s presidency.

The American mission in Yemen lies in restoring legitimacy to Abd al-Hadi’s central government. In country facing rising food insecurity, severe malnutrition and a lack of sanitation, the long term project must address this humanitarian crisis. A U.S. policy which drives itself purely based on American domestic interests is therefore consigned for failure in the region. It is imperative that Yemen does not go the way of Afghanistan where the Karzai’s Central Government pales in legitimacy when compared to the Taliban. The challenge in Yemen is a political one and especially in light of “signature strikes,” it’s necessary to re-evaluate whether we ultimately think that launching Predator drones that fire cruise missiles is the solution to this problem.

Comparing Pakistan and Yemen

Despite the different security dynamics in Yemen and Pakistan, the drone policy in each region has fed the other. One notable overlap between drone operations in both countries is the doctrine of signature strikes, a remnant from the days of the Bush administration, which supported targeting a group of individuals that were engaging in “suspicious activity.” One commonality between the drone attacks in Pakistan, and Yemen is a re-hauling of the approval process. Under former CIA director Michael Hayden, the approval for drone strikes could be delegated down from the Director and his deputy. Following a failed signature strike in Karez Kot, Pakistan, where a prominent village elder was killed, Obama introduced large procedural changes to the policy, most notably banning the CIA director from delegating the decision to carry out a drone strike down the chain. A key structural change implemented in Pakistan, and now used in Yemen, is the Presidential approval required for ordering a drone strike. Obama, it turns out, keeps a “Kill List,” with the names of both alleged and confirmed Al Qaeda and AQAP militants on it. Key members of Obama’s advisory council on his drone policy include chief counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, Legal Adviser of the Department of State Harold Koh and General Counsel of the Department of Defense Jeh Johnson. This “drone council” has played an active role in AfPak, and now in Yemen, in determining who to target. A key facet of this council is the diversity in terms of political beliefs and backgrounds of its members. The overwhelming support for the policy that comes from the CIA is balanced by the pragmatic centrism of Jeh Johnson and the liberal views of Harold Koh, who was a noted critic of targeted killings. These added levels of accountability are a departure from the days of the drone policy under Admiral Mike Mullen.

The use of drones in Yemen has also accounted for and remedied mistakes made in the AfPak region. For instance, deaths caused by friendly fire have significantly reduced, and even been entirely eliminated in some areas. In the aftermath of an accident involving Marines in April 2011, the Pentagon addressed the poor communications, faulty assumptions and “a lack of overall common situational awareness” that led to the accident. This couples with recommended detailed reviews of battlefield procedures has had the desired effect of lowering casualties, with no reports of friendly fire incidents in Yemen. The U.S. is also improving the technical capabilities of drones after the experiences in AfPak, with reports alleging research into nuclear powered drones. Such drones would resolve persistent issues including insufficient hang time over targets, lack of power for sophisticated surveillance and lack of communications capacity.


While drone usage remains controversial, many discussions of the issue and fail to recognize the requisite middle ground in the doctrine. Given recent developments in Yemen where AQAP continues to fortify itself by winning hearts and minds, building alliances with foreign militants and recruiting new members and franchises (such as Ansar al Shariah) to join its cause, it is necessary to ask ourselves the following question – would we rather keep Al Qaeda and its franchises on the move, forcing them to disperse their locations, or are we willing to take the risk of them operating from an established hub in order to cut their fiery rhetoric?

Drone strikes give the U.S. the unique ability to target and eliminate key AQAP cell leaders without having to put boots on the ground. When combined with the ISR capabilities of drones, the the United Sates. The Yemeni goverment has the comfort of knowing that the entire process of fighting terrorism in the area has essentially been outsourced to it. Preventing AQAP from building a permanent base in Yemen is necessary to allow foreign personnel and Yemeni authorities to act to stem the humanitarian crisis. Threatening AQAP will hopefully help reduce the flow of militants and arms from proximate regions into the Abyan insurgency, and would also weaken the Al Qaeda-Al Shabaab nexus. Drones certainly aren’t ideal; but given the nature of the enemy in question, they may just be the best bet.

Anirudh Sivaram, INEGMA Summer Intern 2012 & Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, Research & Consultancy, INEGMA


INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

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