Michael Kelley | Jul. 10, 2012
One of the top journalists in Yemen recently spoke with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) about the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the covert U.S. drone war.
Hakim Almasmari, a reporter for CNN and the Editor-in-Chief of the English-language Yemen Post, is an American of Yemeni descent who moved to Yemen's capital of Sanaa 10 years ago.
The U.S. now believes that the biggest terrorist threat resides in the impoverished Gulf state – BIJ details how U.S. drone strikes have spiked there this year – and Almasmari gave a first hand account of the conditions on the ground after AQAP and its local allies were driven out of their southern strongholds.
It's a very informative interview, and we've summarized some of Almasmari's most revealing points:
There will be a sharp increase in suicide attacks and assassination attempts as AQAP changes its strategy from holding towns, which is very costly, to traditional guerrilla tactics.
AQAP evacuated south Yemen because it struck a deal with Yemen's government. Almasmari cites the fact that 88 suspected AQAP militants have escaped prison in the last four months, including five senior members from a high security prison last week.
Yemeni officials have confirmed that there are three kinds of U.S. strikes – drone strikes, jets coming from Djibouti and strikes coming from U.S. navy ships – and all of them have been used in different ways.
The Yemeni air force is weak and conducts strikes with few casualties while U.S. drones strikes are increasing without any coordination with the Yemen Defense Ministry. Yemeni officials told Almasmari that very few ministry officials know details of U.S. strikes.
The Yemeni government will never be transparent about U.S. drones because it would cause a major uprising in Yemen, so official statements lack credibility.
It is extremely difficult to report on drone strikes because many are now occurring in mountainous regions or areas where very few people live. Furthermore, one needs multiple sources who can confirm that a strike was from a drone before reporting it.
Some quotes from Almasmari paint a particularly devastating picture:
"The U.S. is helping Yemen become more of a dictatorship rather than an institutional nation. By allowing the drone strikes and no one knowing about it, this way people cannot stand against it or approve it."
"The only time when [civilian casualties] are reported is when independent sources confirm the news to me and the government officially acknowledges those civilian casualties. But most of the time they are never reported, only when the government is forced to report it."
Almasmari's insights echo events from the other frontiers of covert U.S. drone operations: U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have released high-level insurgents to make peace, Pakistan says it has not given permission for any U.S. drone strikes in exchange for Washington's apology for the killing of Pakistani troops in November and the BIJ's statistics show how difficult it is to track civilian casualties.