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Yemen has seen a major surge in drone strikes in the past two weeks, as the US hunts for al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents. But the secretive and indiscriminate attacks are terrorizing and radicalizing Yemenis, say critics.
The surge in strikes began after intelligence chatter prompted Washington to suspect that the group "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" (AQAP) was planning major terrorist attacks in the region. Nineteen US embassies were closed as a result.
At least 38 people have been killed in the past two weeks or so, in a campaign targeting people the news agencies routinely refer to as "insurgents linked to AQAP" - a group that US officials describe as the most dangerous branch of the global terrorist network.
As a result of the surge, it seems that Yemen has become the main battleground in the US' never-ending "war on terror." While Washington never comments on drone attacks, more than 20 air strikes have been confirmed this year by independent observers like the Long War Journal.
But the barrage of drone attacks has had a traumatic effect on the country. Yemeni activist and journalist Farea al-Muslimi testified before the US Senate earlier this year, describing the innocent lives lost and the psychological devastation on the population as a whole. In an article for the British Independent newspaper, al-Muslimi also attacked western media outlets for routinely pre-judging the victims of drone attacks: "Nobody is yet sure of the identities of those killed in the attacks," he wrote. "But I knew that the media would report 'suspected militants' were killed."
"The US has become al Qaeda's public relations officer," al-Muslimi wrote, because the increased drone strikes, which have also been widened to include targets only loosely connected with terrorist suspects, have turned public opinion against the US.
Sarah Jamal, an activist and sociologist living in Yemen, describes how US drones are a constant threat to the population. "Hearing it and talking about it and advocating for or against something is one thing, and then living it something else," she told DW. "In the past two weeks we experienced a Navy surveillance aircraft, hovering above our heads 24/7, two days before Eid (Eid al-Fitr festival - the ed). Kids were playing, people were shopping for the holidays for gifts, with a Navy aircraft hovering above their heads. We had no idea what it was planning to do, the sound was really terrifying, and people were just waiting for the strike at any time."
"I feel insulted that an empty embassy that was evacuated simply matters more for my government and for the American government than the lives of civilians on the street," Jamal added. "I'm known as a secularist activist in Yemen, and I suffer from extremism myself, but I don't believe that the way to fight extremism is to bomb people."
Not only are the drone strikes counter-productive, al-Muslimis says - they are an expression of America's helplessness. With no reliable human intelligence resources, the US is simply bombing "suspects" and hoping they are killing terrorists. "The US is running to drones every time its counter-terrorism efforts fail," he wrote.
Noon Arabia, co-founder of the pressure group Support Yemen, agrees. "It has been four years since the US started the drone strikes in Yemen in its 'war on terror' and yet that has not eliminated Al Qaeda," she told DW in an email. "Many civilians have been killed, aka 'collateral damage', the number of AQAP members has increased since, and so has the resentment of average Yemenis toward the US."
Peter Salisbury, a project consultant at Chatham House's Yemen Forum in the UK, is wary of saying that drone strikes are directly radicalizing Yemenis, but he is certain they are having a negative impact on the country. "The drone strikes amplify the sense among ordinary Yemenis that the US is prioritizing its security interests over the wellbeing of Yemenis," he told DW. "And that the politicians running the country, particularly President [Abd Rabbuh Mansur] Hadi, are complicit in the drone campaign despite public anger against the use of drones."
That is being exacerbated by the government's neglect of poorer parts of the country. "Given the degree to which the government has failed to recycle oil revenues into regional development in the past, and that some of the strikes are taking place in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the country, [drone strikes] are hardly helpful in creating a sense among poor rural Yemenis that the central government, or the US, are looking out for their best interests," he said.
That can be confirmed by those living in the country. "Areas that lack food, basic services, infrastructure, those areas where air strikes happen, are those areas that don't have electricity or schooling or hospitals," said Jamal. "Both the Yemeni and the American government should have taken care of giving people basics before bombing them. The American aid doesn't go to help those people."
On top of all this, says Salisbury, comes the lack of transparency. "If my government was complicit in using drone strikes to kill people it said were criminals, and civilians were dying as a result, I'd want to know exactly how the decision to use that kind of force was being made," he said. "The mechanisms for doing this aren't really in place in Yemen."