A large amount of information and disinformation has been released from two events in Yemen. Following the death-by-drone of Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, a midlevel player in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Obama administration approved the public release of a foiled bomb-making plot involving a double agent. The resulting mass of intel must be broken down and sorted in accordance with Yemen's environment.
Another AQAP "Leader" Dead
The current wave of U.S. propaganda wasted no time gathering momentum from the death of al-Quso, who was targeted on May 6th in Shabwah governorate (in al-Awlaki territory). Immediately billed as AQAP's "chief" or a "senior leader" by the U.S. media, al-Quso's killing trickled across cable news because of his minor role in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. What the Obama administration and U.S. media won't tell Americans is that al-Quso is no chief, leader or "senior" commander; he acted as one of several local organizers during the Cole's plotting, and the U.S. media openly reports that al-Quso overslept his assignment to tape the attack. He's one of many figures involved in AQAP's origins and current operations, rendering his death meaningless beyond American and Saudi justice. Just as AQAP has seized more territory and killed hundreds of Yemeni troops since Anwar al-Alwaki's death in September 2011, al-Quso's absence will go unnoticed on Yemen's battlefield and within AQAP's external operations.
The same phenomenon has elevated AQAP's senior bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, whom the Obama administration has turned into an irreplaceable mastermind. al-Awlaki, al-Quso and al-Asiri have all been described as AQAP's chief of external operations in the U.S. media.
Building on al-Quso's death, the White House has now released information on a foiled bomb plot involving a Saudi double agent (citing his safety as the reason for delay). The informant managed to infiltrate AQAP's ranks and volunteer for the job of detonating a U.S.-bound airplane with military-grade explosives, then turned the device over to Saudi and American officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This development quickly exceeded the scale of al-Quso's death and is being hailed as a major security achievement for the Obama administration. According to The New York Times, the Saudi agent also "provided critical information that permitted the C.I.A. to direct the drone strike on Sunday that killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso."
al-Quso's death and the foiled bombing illustrate how successful counterintelligence can fit within an unsuccessful counterinsurgency.
The Obama Administration Drones On
The strategic takeaway from the last 72 hours is only indirectly related to the widening scope of U.S. counterterrorism on the Arabian Peninsula. Expansion is a known fact; the Obama administration has spent its entire term increasing the number of military assets inside and around Yemen. Applying the systematic formula developed in Pakistan, personnel from Afghanistan (along with other parts of the region) are being shifted into the conflict to develop more actionable intelligence on ranking AQAP members. Yemen's semi-new government then concentrates on defending its bases from AQAP and reclaiming lost territory.
The real upshot of two high-profile, low-context events is equally known but significant at the fourth-generation level. Armed with these "successes," the Obama administration is emboldened to intensify its policy and believes that it cannot be caught. Obama himself doesn't need to go near Yemen or explain U.S. policy to the American people. Shallow U.S. media coverage and a limited number of Yemeni observers provide another smokescreen for drone strikes and covert operations. By eliminating high-profile AQAP figures and thwarting a small number of external plots, the administration can sell its policy in Yemen (and the overall war against al-Qaeda) as an undeniable success - even though AQAP has grown its footprint throughout this time.
On Tuesday Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that Washington has "begun to reintroduce small numbers of trainers into Yemen," a claim he made numerous times during the revolution. U.S. officials would employ a similar line when confronted on the level of training to Saleh's personal guards, which had turned on protests instead of AQAP, but Washington's collective press corp rarely initiated this discussion. Yemeni officials also admit that U.S. personnel never left and that they traveled with government troops to Rada'a after AQAP militants briefly seized the city in January.
"I mean, our counterterrorism cooperation, even through Yemen’s darkest days, frankly, continued, has continued," the State Department's Mark Toner told reporters while highlighting this cooperation.
This pseudo-development is being spun as a response to recent attacks on the Yemeni military - attacks that AQAP attributes to U.S. drone strikes. A vicious cycle of drone strikes creates new militants, sparking new clashes that demand more U.S. forces, which in turn create new militants. The presence of U.S. Special Forces has been and will remain integral to AQAP's own propaganda, yet the administration continues to feature its achievements as U.S. policy tumbles down an unstable path. White House spokesman Jay Carney assured inquiring reporters, "It is indicative of the kind of work that our intelligence and counterterrorism services are performing regularly to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda in general, and AQAP in particular."
Battle of Two Cancers
If paired with a full-spectrum strategy that respects Yemen's sovereignty and history, U.S. counterterrorism operations could deal a potentially irreparable amount of damage to AQAP.
Unfortunately this strategy remains a theoretical prospect that is unlikely to see daylight under the Obama administration or a GOP president. Yemen's political, economic and social needs have yet to near or surpass Washington's military priorities; the presidential promotion of Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, is meant to ensure the flow of U.S. counterterrorism. Political and economic reforms will eventually follow but they could also falter, and wise counterinsurgency would already be leading with these platforms. Even Yemenis that support Hadi and oppose AQAP fear an expansion of U.S. military operations, and expect American influence to bleed into Yemen's political affairs. The Obama administration funded Saleh's corrupt regime, trained his violent family members, sped up the construction of an internal drone base, held the GCC's signing ceremony in Saudi Arabia, organized a UN-sponsored referendum for Hadi and approved Saleh's immunity.
Expecting Washington not to interfere with Yemen's future has no basis in reality.
The fundamental problem of U.S. counterterrorism remains the overall effect of U.S. counterterrorism: both Washington and AQAP's leadership view Yemen as another Pakistan to manipulate. Both need instability to pursue their ends, which intersect due to mutual goals. For this reason John Brennan's latest defense of U.S. counterterrorism - "We're going to work with them to remove this cancer from Yemen" - is reflected back on America. Sana'a, Washington and Riyadh will be working for a long time with their current strategy.