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Targeted Drone Strikes and the Growing Unrest in Yemen

By   /  January 1, 2017  /  No Comments

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By James Feeney

Less than a month after the deadly terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States launched its first-ever deadly targeted drone strike and changed the way the United States conducted warfare in the future. Drone strikes dramatically increased since then and have been used in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and even Yemen. The United States justifies the use and legality of targeted killings against al-Qaeda, based on two related but independent criteria:

  1. The United States and al-Qaeda are two belligerents engaged in an armed conflict;
  2. Even in the absence of an armed conflict, the United States has an inherent right to defend itself against the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

Targeted killings by drones have invoked great controversy within the United States as well as the international community. This is especially true when strikes are conducted in countries where the United States is not engaged in an ongoing military operation. Because al-Qaeda is not a nation-state and therefore has no traditional borders, the United States justifies using drones outside the “battlefield” primarily as a means of self-defense against imminent threats.

While some nations, like Pakistan, have an agreement with the United States regarding military operations and drone strikes, no known agreement exists with Yemen. And while the United States began, and continues to use target drone strikes in Yemen, a significant debate arose around their legality when the United States killed the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim, in a drone strike in 2011. Many human rights organizations questioned the killing of an American citizen without a trial as a violation of his constitutional rights, but the United States released a redacted version of a memo from the Justice Department in 2014 which authorized the legality of targeting American-born terrorist abroad. So long as the United States acts in concert with the aforementioned criteria, it does not appear that they violated any international laws with targeted drone strikes.

Moreover, while the United States has maintained its distance from direct conflicts in Yemeni territory, emerging events further cement its presence there. In the early evening on October 10, 2016, two missiles were fired from the coast of Yemen near the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. The missiles’ intended target: the USS Mason. Though both missiles failed to strike the U.S. naval ship, the attack came less than ten days after a missile struck and severely damaged a United Arab Emirates ship in the same area. The attack supposedly came from a territory likely held by Houthi rebels. The United States responded two days later and launched Tomahawk missiles at three Houthi rebel radar sites suspected in the attack on the Mason. This overt action further cemented the United States effort to back the Saudi led campaign against the Houthis. However, this action was not met without backlash, and uncertainty looms with how the United State will continue to deal with the growing unrest in Yemen.

In late 2014, the Houthi rebel group captured Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, from the predominantly Sunni-controlled government. This conflict was escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began an extensive airstrike campaign against the Houthi rebels. Since the start of the war two years ago, over 10,000 people have been killed – including approximately 4,000 civilians (according to a U.N. report).

While the Saudi-led coalition has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Houthi rebels since last March, United States backing has mostly been relegated to support missions and providing intelligence for Saudi forces. However, support for the coalition is becoming more contentious due to the increased civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi airstrikes. Especially after the accidental bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, which resulted in the death of nineteen civilians. Since then, lawmakers have attempted to pressure the Obama administration from withdrawing support, including his request to Congress for the approval of a $1.15 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia.

While the Saudi-led coalition has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Houthi rebels since last March, United States backing has mostly been relegated to support missions and providing intelligence for Saudi forces. However, support for the coalition is becoming more contentious due to the increased civilian casualties resulting from Saudi airstrikes. Especially after the accidental bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, which resulted in the death of nineteen civilians. Since then, lawmakers have attempted to pressure the Obama administration from withdrawing support, including his request to Congress for the approval of a $1.15 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, one of the unintended consequences of the conflict in Yemen has been a significant increase in power for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) [to the potential detriment of American national security]. Analysts rated AQAP the most lethal branch of Al-Qaeda, and they are responsible for several prominent terrorist attacks including the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. Before the United States became involved with the Saudi-led coalition, it increased drone strikes, nearly tripling the amount conducted in Yemen before 2012 specifically targeting AQAP. While using drone strikes in Yemen remains a disputed issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently held the “CIA doesn’t have to release legal memos on targeted drone killings and doesn’t have to disclose records identifying those who were targeted or killed.”  

It’s unclear how the next administration will continue operations in Yemen. There is no doubt that instability in Yemen undermines our allies in the Middle East and poses a significant threat to the United States’ national security. Regardless, drones proved to be a unique and important tool in combating threats abroad, so long as they are used in concert with the criteria the United States utilized in the past. Though the road ahead is entirely transparent, it is likely that drones will be at the forefront of operations moving forward.


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