I’m not sure what’s more facepalm-y – Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi unequivocally praising U.S. drone strikes within his country, or Hadi simultaneously accepting a small fleet of unmanned aerial spy craft from the Americans.
It’s a telling bit of have-it-both-ways. This is Yemen, after all. The country of nearly 25 million has not only become the locus of the new robo-counterterrorism, with a recent uptick in Hellfire missile strikes that left 29 dead in eight days, but is also already home to some of the more notorious hits of America’s shadow wars. This is where the same December 2009 drone strike that knocked out Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri, an al-Qaeda linked militant, also killed 41 civilians, 22 of which were children. This is also the site of last year’s hotly contested targeted drone killing of U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the late YouTube cleric for a burgeoning AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Shortly after, of course, and with still no clear admission from the U.S., Abdulrahman, al-Awlaki’s teenaged son, likewise received the brunt of Hellfire. These are just a few instances that have many going so far as dubbing Obama’s the “lethal presidency”.
Hadi apparently has no qualms with it. The Yemeni president says he signs off on all U.S. strikes, true. But even still, he apparenty believes drones are more intelligent than humans: “The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain,” Hadi told the Washington Post.
He wasn’t slipping up. “They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you’re aiming at,” Hadi said last week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in D.C. And the U.S., he added, “helped with their drones because the Yemeni Air Force cannot carry out missions at night. The electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.”
Hadi’s remarks seemed to have earned him the star treatment throughout his jaunt. President Obama spoke briefly with only several heads of state at a reception last week for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. But he singled out Hadi for a proper meeting, and this after he just happened to swing through Hadi’s meeting with Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan.
U.S. drones strikes in Yemen began in December 2009, but were halted in May 2010 because of outcries over civilian casualties. The U.S. military and CIA have since resumed drone strikes
The specifics of these meetings are anyone’s guess. But we can glean some idea of the talks just given that last month the U.S. gave (sold?) Yemen four mid-sized unmanned surveillance gliders. According to an unnamed U.S. official, the fleet of Raven RQ-11As – the same spy bots being deployed by several U.S. federal agencies as so-called eco drones – came with an accompanying pack of American troops, to boot.
The Raven is manufactured by AeroVironment, one of many aero-defense labs dotting the southern California drone zone. Now, I’ve watched a good deal of these promo reels for top-tier government drone contractors, and can say that broodingly honchoish theatrics are pretty much industry standard. That said, holy shit:
This is brutal
Ravens can’t kill, of course. And where the coffee-table sized systems will launch from is not yet clear. One possible base is a joint operations center near Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, which serves as the nerve-center for snooping on the AQAP.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Yemenis won’t soon be kneeling in reverence (or at the least, in grudging acceptance) to the drones, as depicted as the curtain drops on the Raven ad. I’m certainly not saying they shouldn’t, either. There’s decent enough chance some Yemenis will welcome the things, if they haven’t yet already.
But in a volatile region pocked by drone hits; and in an already poverty-stricken country where millions of people – about half the population – face a looming food crisis, and where American drones have struck 33 times this year alone, Yemen’s new U.S. drones could just as well be taken as the gaze-y scouts for Hadi’s larger, weaponized drone embrace. Reservations, or downright hatred, over the sky robots may only fan the flames of an anti-American resentment that could be seen as mushrooming.
“This is why Al Qaeda in Yemen today is much stronger than it was a few years ago,” activist Ibrahim Mothana argues in the Times.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had just a few hundred members in 2009, and controlled no territory. Today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, at least a thousand members and substantial operational spaces in Abyan and Shabwa, in addition to a presence in Mareb, Rada, Hadramout and other regions of Yemen."
At least now we can’t say Hadi didn’t see it coming.
Top: Hellfire aftermath, Jaar, Yemen (via Chris Cobb-Smith/Forensic Architecture)