Salem al-Taysi’s big brown eyes stared straight through me. I was trying to ask him about his father, who had been killed six days earlier in a US drone strike that had rocked this barren hillside in remote central Yemen. But Salem did not say a word. The boy, who appeared to be about ten years old, just gazed intently into the middle distance as his younger siblings huddled around him.
It is hard to forget Salem’s eyes. Every time the White House claimed that the 12 civilians, including his father, who were killed in a wedding procession on 12 December were al-Qaeda militants, I thought of him. I remember his brothers and sisters and the 17 other children I met that day who had lost their fathers. I think of the scores of people in the village, living without any support from the government, without electricity or running water, who had lost their main breadwinner.
This is the grim reality of the “Yemen model” touted again last month by the US president, Barack Obama, as he outlined his strategy for tackling the threat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It is 12 years since the first US missile strikes hit Yemen. The “Yemen model” is one of perpetual violence, war without end. It is an opaque conflict in which no one knows what qualifies an individual to become a target for US drones, for Yemeni, Saudi or US fighter jets, or for US-trained Yemeni counterterrorism groups. The limits of what can be done in the name of “counterterrorist” action often appear boundless.
Without American boots on the ground, Washington can maintain this never-ending war while facing few questions from the public at home. A YouGov survey on 4 September showed that only 16 per cent of Americans were aware that their government had carried out bomb attacks on Yemen in the previous six months. Washington never claims responsibility for its air or naval strikes. Under the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni politicians even lied to their parliament on behalf of Washington and claimed responsibility for US bombings.
In two years’ time, the problem of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) will pass on to another US president. Obama has managed to stave off an attack by Aqap on the US, though he came close to failure in 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a passenger jet. Had the explosives planted in his underwear detonated as planned, the Yemen model as we now know it might have looked very different, though undoubtedly the US focus would still be purely military.
Preoccupied by missile strikes and the training of counterterrorism troops, Washington has failed to tackle the underlying causes of al-Qaeda’s rise in Yemen. In the past five years, the number of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia supporters and militants has grown.
It is no coincidence that al-Qaeda was able to garner support from local people when it took control of towns in the southern province of Abyan in 2011. In a secessionist area, already hostile towards a northern government perceived as oppressive, residents of the town of Ja’ar (militants renamed it the Islamic Emirate of Waqar) welcomed the insurgents’ ability to maintain the electricity supply and provide security and a justice system where the state had failed.
As Samir al-Mushari, a farmer who was severely burned in an apparent US drone strike on the town, told me in May 2012: “Ansar al-Sharia solved many problems for us that the government hadn’t managed to do for 20 years.” Life was better for many under al-Qaeda until the US-backed campaign to remove the Islamists began in 2012.
Almost three years after the de facto ousting of President Saleh, the transitional government’s limited credibility has been eroded by the worsening humanitarian situation and the lack of security or law and order. A UN-backed political transition process, formulated in 2011, has flagged. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2003 and the social contract has expired. On 21 September, Houthi fighters (the Houthis are a Shia clan) took control of the capital, Sana’a, forcing an agreement that included the dissolution of the government.
Anti-US sentiment has soared in the four years since I first arrived in Yemen. The numbers of Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia fighters have grown. They are spreading across the country and the volume and scope of their attacks have increased. There is still no visible end for the “Yemen model”. For Obama, the endgame will come when he leaves office in 2017. But when will it end for Yemen?