How Obama is helping al Qaeda

In the early years of George Bush’s presidency when it was easy to question the intellectual abilities of a commander in chief who so frequently mangled his sentences, his neoconservative advisers often attributed to Bush a key “insight” that he had immediately after the 9/11 attacks: that America was at war. The neocons’ rather transparent aim was to portray Bush as an astute wartime leader rather than a dumb neocon puppet.

As Barack Obama ran to replace Bush, he had his own “insight”: that the ill-defined war on terrorism could be won if narrowed to the more specific goal of defeating al Qaeda. Moreover, defeating al Qaeda, as far as Obama was concerned, had less to do with winning an ideological struggle for hearts and minds. Al Qaeda could be defeated simply by systematically assassinating its leaders and upper ranks. And although Obama had the political sophistication not to employ a clownish gimmick as had Bush with his set of most-wanted playing cards for identifying Iraq’s Baathist regime, Obama seems to have shared Bush’s view that his enemies were finite in number and could be defeated through a process of elimination.

Obama does not seem to be troubled by the question that Donald Rumsfeld famously and sensibly posed: “Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?”

When Obama started implementing his strategy of eliminating al Qaeda, relying principally on drone missile attacks, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula barely existed. But as Obama’s drone war has expanded from Pakistan to Yemen, AQAP has not only grown but in size as a militant fighting force but it now also controls significant areas of territory. And it isn’t just winning in the battlefield but also winning popular support.

If Obama sticks to his strategy of trying to kill his way to victory, he may eventually feel forced to adopt a tactic that would be impossible to justify politically or ethically: large-scale bombing of al Qaeda-controlled cities.

The Washington Post reports:

Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.

After recent U.S. missile strikes, mostly from unmanned aircraft, the Yemeni government and the United States have reported that the attacks killed only suspected al-Qaeda members. But civilians have also died in the attacks, said tribal leaders, victims’ relatives and human rights activists.

“These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’ ” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March.

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

“The drone strikes have not helped either the United States or Yemen,” said Sultan al-Barakani, who was a top adviser to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Yemen is paying a heavy price, losing its sons. But the Americans are not paying the same price.”

In 2009, when President Obama was first known to have authorized a missile strike on Yemen, U.S. officials said there were no more than 300 core AQAP members. That number has grown in recent years to 700 or more, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say. In addition, hundreds of tribesmen have joined AQAP in the fight against the U.S.-backed Yemeni government.

As AQAP’s numbers and capabilities have grown, so has its reach and determination. That was reflected in a suicide bombing last week in the capital, Sanaa, that killed more than 100 people, mostly Yemeni soldiers.

On their Web sites, on their Facebook pages and in their videos, militants who had been focused on their fight against the Yemeni government now portray the war in the south as a jihad against the United States, which could attract more recruits and financing from across the Muslim world. Yemeni tribal Web sites are filled with al-Qaeda propaganda, including some that brag about killing Americans.

“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.”

In a PBS Frontline report which first aired last night, the intrepid reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ventured into al Qaeda territory.

Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Is AQAP destined to self destruct in a similar way that al Qaeda in Iraq ended up defeating itself, as David Ignatius suggests?

Yemen’s own secular militants who have been leading a separatist movement do not see AQAP’s support diminishing. Indeed, Jemajem, a militant leader with nom de guerre of “the Guevara of south Yemen,” predicts that it won’t be long before al Qaeda gains control of Aden — a strategically placed port city with one million residents.

Earlier this month, Abdul-Ahad described how Jemajem recently counseled fellow fighters.

“Look at our brothers the mujahideen in Ja’ar,” he said to the group gathered in Aden. “They carried weapons and liberated their lands and they have created order. They created something out of nothing. Do you know how? Because the youth of al-Qaida fight for a cause while we in the Hirak haven’t put our beliefs in our hearts. We have to sacrifice and die.”

At this, some of the assembled young revolutionaries rolled their eyes: most are secular activists who chew qat and smoke, and have little to do with religion.

“Do you want a sharia state?” asked one. “We are fighting for a civil state here. The jihadis won’t bring us that.”

“I don’t want an Islamic state but the jihadis are coming,” said Jemajem. He drew a circle on a cushion. “Look, the jihadis are surrounding Aden, they have taken the east [Zanjibar and Ja’ar] and are now attacking checkpoints in the north. Some of their men are already inside the city.”

The battle for Aden was coming soon, Jemajem said, and the separatists would be making a mistake to resist them.

“I told our leaders that when the jihadis take Aden, I won’t send my men to die fighting them,” he said.

“If young men lose hope in our cause they will be looking for an alternative. And our hopeless young men are joining al-Qaida.”

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