Christopher Swift attacks conventional wisdom on one of the most popular anti-drone arguments. Surprisingly, only five of the forty Yemeni tribal and religious leaders surveyed believed that drones, on net, helped al-Qaeda. One even suggested that “now the drones are seen as helping us.”
Last month, I traveled to Yemen to study how AQAP operates and whether the conventional understanding of the relationship between drones and recruitment is correct. While there, I conducted 40 interviews with tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources. These subjects came from 14 of Yemen’s 21 provinces, most from rural regions.
But to my astonishment, none of the individuals I interviewed drew a causal relationship between U.S. drone strikes and al Qaeda recruiting. Indeed, of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al Qaeda more than they were hurting it.
Al Qaeda exploits U.S. errors, to be sure. As the Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen correctly observes, the death of some 40 civilians in the December 2009 cruise missile strike on Majala infuriated ordinary Yemenis and gave AQAP an unexpected propaganda coup. But the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient. As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.