National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen is “guided by the view that we must do what is necessary to disrupt AQAP plots against U.S. interests” and to help the Yemeni government build up its capabilities to fight AQAP.
“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”
The dramatic escalation in drone strikes in Yemen followed foiled plots by AQAP to bomb a U.S. airliner headed to Detroit in 2009 and to send parcel bombs via cargo planes to Chicago the following year. In April, Saudi intelligence agents helped foil an AQAP plot to plant a suicide bomber on a U.S.-bound plane.
On May 6, a U.S. drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, a senior al-Qaeda leader who was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, an attack that killed 17 American sailors. The drone strike in Shabwa province also killed a second man, whom U.S. and Yemeni officials described as another al-Qaeda militant.
But according to his relatives, the man was a 19-year-old named Nasser Salim who was tending to his farm when Quso arrived in his vehicle. Quso knew Salim’s family and was greeting him when the missiles landed.
“He was torn to pieces,” said Salim’s uncle, Abu Baker Aidaroos, 30, a Yemeni soldier. “He was not part of al-Qaeda. But by America’s standards, just because he knew Fahd al-Quso, he deserved to die with him.”
Out of anger, Aidaroos said, he left his unit in Abyan province, the nexus of the fight against the militants. Today, instead of fighting al-Qaeda, he sympathizes with the group — not out of support for its ideology, he insists, but out of hatred for the United States.
‘More hostility’ toward U.S.
The U.S. strikes, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say, are also angering powerful tribes that could prevent AQAP from gaining strength. The group has seized control of large swaths of southern Yemen in the past year, while the government has had to counter growing perceptions that it is no more than an American puppet.
“There is more hostility against America because the attacks have not stopped al-Qaeda, but rather they have expanded, and the tribes feel this is a violation of the country’s sovereignty,” said Anssaf Ali Mayo, Aden head of al-Islah, Yemen’s most influential Islamist party, which is now part of the coalition government. “There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda because of the U.S. strikes.”