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US Escalating Drone War in Yemen

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US unmanned aerial drone strikes against suspected Islamic militants in Yemen have increased dramatically in the last year.

Agence France-Presse reports that while the number of US drone attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan have decreased for the second straight year, strikes targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based terror group, have increased nearly threefold in 2012.

In Pakistan, the US carried out 46 drone strikes in 2012, down from 72 in 2011 and 122 in 2010. In Yemen, there have been 53 drone strikes in 2012, up from 18 last year, according to figures from the New America Foundation.

The most recent American drone attack reportedly killed two al-Qaeda-linked miltants in the eastern Hadramout district on Friday.

The US shift from Pakistan to Yemen is a result of the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to the forefront of Islamic terror groups in the post-Osama bin Laden era. The group is believed to be responsible for the foiled 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber” plot, as well as numerous other terror attacks. In 2011, now-disgraced CIA Director David Petraeus called AQAP “the most dangerous node in the global jihad.”

In stark contrast to US drone strikes in Pakistan, which have been condemned by that country’s government, the Yemeni government endorses such attacks on its soil. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who rose to power in the wake of the Arab Spring revolt against longtime US-backed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, supports America’s drone war on the grounds that Yemen’s decrepit military is incapable of dealing with the AQAP threat on its own.

While US-Yemeni anti-terrorism cooperation has yielded some positive results, notably driving AQAP-linked militants from territory in the southern Abyan province that they’d held for more than a year, AQAP and allied fighters remain a formidable adversary and continue to launch attacks throughout the country– including in the largest cities. AQAP’s core leadership remains nearly intact and the group has tripled the ranks of its fighters since 2009.

And just because the Hadi government officially supports US drone strikes does not mean that the attacks are popular among the Yemeni people, many of whom view them as violations of their country’s sovereignty and disrespectful of the rule of law America claims to champion.

Furthermore, the inevitable civilian casualties that come with even the “precision” warfare of drone strikes has stoked tensions. A US drone attack near the central town of Rada that killed 13 civilians, including many women and children, inflamed anti-American sentiment in September.

“They’re having a huge effect in how people see the US,” Yemeni political activist Intisar al-Qadhi told McClatchy Newspapers. “When we think about America, we see an image of a plane, dropping bombs on our people,” she added.

Even Yemenis who support the US-led war against AQAP and other terrorists bristle at drone strikes that kill innocents.

“We’re all aware of the state of the Yemeni military,” Jamal Saleh, who has fought against Islamic militants in Abyan, told McClatchy. “[Strikes] that kill al-Qaeda are one thing. But strikes that kill civilians are another.”

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