By Abubakr Al-Shamahi
The local franchise in Yemen, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, has struck within the borders of the country, the deadliest attack killing over 100 Yemeni soldiers in May 2012, and has attempted to attack the West, most famously with the failed underwear bomb of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib.
Recently, intelligence received by the US has led to unprecedented security measures in Yemen, with several Western embassies, including those of the US and the UK, closing, and Westerners evacuating the country. At the same time, the US stepped up its drone strikes in rural parts of Yemen, killing at least 38.
Whilst the United States claims that its drone strikes are against al-Qa’ida militants, and that all care is taken to avoid civilian deaths, many civilians have been killed. Civilian deaths include the Deputy Governor of Marib province, Jabir al-Shabwani, and the 2009 strike on the village of al-Majala, which left at least 35 civilians dead, including children.
This has led to growing resentment in Yemen, and increased anger at the expanding US military presence in the country.
Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni writer and activist, says that there are other ways of targeting militants.
“If you are speaking about al-Qa’ida, we have a well trained counterterrorism unit in the Central Security Forces. It has never, at least since 2011, shot at any al-Qa’ida members. Instead of fighting in Abyan [where AQAP took over a number of towns], it was killing civilian democracy activists in Change Square in Sana’a.”
“When did the US even try the very basic tools in fighting al-Qa’ida to say that there is no alternative to drones? Rather, this is an addiction the US has gotten used to.”
Baraa Shiban, who works on the ground in Yemen for the UK charity Reprieve, is adamant that Yemenis are living in fear.
Writing for al-Jazeera’s Arabic website, he says, “Yemenis now simply dream that they can move from province to province without fearing that they are a target for a US drone strike.”
Yet, despite the increased attention on drone attacks in Yemen and US foreign policy in the country, it is disingenuous to say that drones are at the forefront of the average Yemenis mind.
Many, especially in urban areas, are simply not affected, and worry about other issues, such as unemployment and the country’s intermittent electricity supply.
There have been no major protests in Sana’a over the last two weeks against the drone strikes. For comparison, there has been a massive protest against Egypt’s new military Government, following the crackdown on protesters there.
In Sana’a, there has been talk of drones, but only since an unidentified American plane flew over the capital for a couple of days recently. At the same time, drones were pounding other parts of the country, and yet very little was heard on the streets of the capital about that.
The Yemeni Government defends the US drone strikes in the country, something that Yemeni President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi has said he personally signs off on.
Yemen’s Interior Minister, Abdul Qader Qahtan, has defended the security ties with the United States.
“Yemen has suffered a lot from terrorism,” he said. “The problem is that this organisation targets everyone, foreigners and Yemenis. This causes Yemeni citizens to be afraid.”
Meanwhile, following the terror scare for two weeks earlier this month, normal life is returning to Sana’a – although it did not really go away.
Despite media reports to the contrary, there was not much talk in Sana’a of a terror plot, and the streets were normal, save for a few more military armoured cars around.
The US and UK ambassadors have returned to the country, thereby signalling that the worst seems to have passed.
The fear is, that this is only the start of a prolonged battle between the US and al-Qa’ida, and that Yemen is the new battleground.