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The Five Next Steps the U.S. Should Take to Defeat al-Qaeda


As fifteen U.S. embassies remain shuttered across the Middle East, it’s clear that, however successful drone strikes have been at degrading al-Qaeda’s strength, the terrorist group continues to be an adaptable and resilient foe. This past week, the Yemeni government was able to thwart an assault on its southern oil facilities by al-Qaeda forces. Though unsuccessful, the attempts demonstrate how the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy has failed to defeat the group. Rather, the organization has quietly been waging a comeback in Yemen the last several years, where it has become the new center-of-gravity for al-Qaeda writ large. The United States needs a new approach in Yemen—one that does more than drones, less than an invasion, and prevents a retreat of U.S. personnel.

The Yemeni military launched a largely successful campaign in 2012 to push al-Qaeda out of the southern areas of the country it had overrun in 2011, forcing the terrorist group’s members to retreat to their traditional safe havens toward the country's interior. Returning to their insurgent roots, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began to re-grow. It embarked on a concerted assassination campaign against Yemeni security, military, and intelligence officials and targeted tribal leaders who had assisted in the 2012 offensive. The assassination campaign, which continues to this day, has killed over 90 Yemeni officials and tribal leaders. But most disturbing is what these assassinations—which require knowledge of the victim's daily routine and constant surveillance of the target—reveal about al-Qaeda’s pervasive and largely unknown infrastructure throughout Yemen. Moreover, Al-Qaeda has also conducted incursions into several governorates and expanded its criminal fundraising efforts.

Given AQAP's persistence in Yemen, the United States can’t solely rely upon  a drone-centered strategy against the group. Although counterterrorism missions are an essential part of any strategy to defeat AQAP, they are insufficient and perhaps even counterproductive in the long term due to the risk of civilian casualties. What is needed is a low-visibility, relatively inexpensive strategy in the provinces—a realistic approach focusing on good governance, development, and security activities that complement the ongoing counterterrorism campaign.

Here is what that means in practice: The U.S. should facilitate the long-term expansion of Yemeni security forces and government services to the areas where al-Qaeda is strongest. In particular, Washington should help Sana launch a decentralized pacification campaign, while applying counterinsurgency tactics to leverage the local population against al-Qaeda. This approach would involve a small U.S. presence exercising influence through the Yemeni government, building relationships with local officials and citizens in order to address the root causes of AQAP's strength.

1) Preparation: Washington's first step should be to create a separate entity at its embassy in Yemen to concentrate on developing a deeper relationship with officials and agencies responsible for service delivery to the provinces.

2) Focusing on the countryside. Once it has established a province-focused organization, Washington should review its current security, governance, and development programming, giving priority to regions where AQAP is strongest and to those Yemeni ministries most involved in provincial affairs. This will require reorienting some resources away from development, counterterrorism, and political reporting, and toward stabilization, pacification, and political action.

3) Enabling a "clear and hold" strategy. After forming the necessary relationships with key Yemeni military and civilian stakeholders, U.S. pacification teams should then deploy to the countryside with Yemeni security forces and embed with provincial officials. The goals of these teams are to advise the Yemeni military as it confronts AQAP, clears areas held by the group, and transition to a population-protection posture. Once this step is achieved, the U.S. should help the Yemeni military partner with local tribes and police to bolster their strength as part of an enduring strategy to prevent al-Qaeda from returning. As with the Anbar "Awakening" movement in Iraq and the Afghan Local Police program in Afghanistan, U.S. officials should explore the possibility of helping Sana regularize its tribal supporters into defensively oriented security forces.

4) Defeating AQAP's soft-power strategy. Once security has been established in these provinces, Washington should deploy Civil-Military Support Elements to their capitals. Partnering with local governors, these teams should focus on extending the central government's reach, facilitating good governance, providing humanitarian aid, and conducting needs assessments.

5) Internationalizing the struggle. In carrying out this restructured strategy, Washington should partner not just with other nations interested in defeating AQAP but also with international institutions in order to enhance safety and mission success—an expanded U.S. presence will be better received if it is undertaken with international legitimacy.

A Yemeni citizenry protected by its security services, enlisted in its own defense, and empowered to make local decisions will be a resilient and enduring check against the return of al-Qaeda. To make the U.S. safer, AQAP needs to be defeated by the very people it seeks to enlist in its cause.

Daniel Green is the Ira Weiner fellow at The Washington Institute and a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.