President Obama’s ‘successful’ counterterrorism strategy in Yemen in limbo

When announcing the US strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama said he would model it after America’s counterterrorism strategy in Somalia and Yemen, “one that we have successfully pursued…for years.”

Immediately after Obama’s speech, we at The Long War Journal questioned the wisdom of describing Somalia and Yemen as “successfully pursued” counterterrorism operations. Al Qaeda’s official branches, Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, remain entrenched in their respective countries, despite some setbacks here and there. AQAP’s core leadership cadre is intact. And both al Qaeda branches continue to control territory while working to conduct attacks outside of their countries. [For details, see LWJ report, US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia.]

In the four plus months since Obama described Yemen as a successful engagement, things have gone from bad to worse. The Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis have broken out from the northern provinces and overran the capital. Just this week, President Hadi, who was perhaps America’s greatest ally on the Arabian Peninsula as he actively endorsed and facilitated US counterterrorism operations, including controversial drone strikes against AQAP, was forced to step down. The prime minister has also resigned and the government has dissolved.

During this timeframe, the US drone program against AQAP has stalled. The last US drone strike in Yemen that has been confirmed by The Long War Journal took place on Nov. 12, 2014. This is especially remarkable given that AQAP has claimed credit for the assault on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, and the terrorists themselves said that AQAP sent them.

Unsurprisingly, US officials are now telling Reuters that counterterrorism operations in Yemen are “paralyzed” with the collapse of the Hadi government (the long gap in strikes in the face of the Charlie Hebdo attack is a clear indication that US CT operations are in limbo). Yemen’s military is also said to be in disarray.

If US officials expect the Houthis to be willing participants against AQAP, they are mistaken. The Houthis, while enemies of AQAP, are no friends of the US. While their movement was not created by Iran, they have adopted the Iranians’ motto: “Death to America.” Additionally, any action against AQAP only serves to strengthen the Houthis, and by extension, Iran.

Meanwhile, without a central government and effective military, Sunnis may be tempted to back AQAP against the Shiite Houthis, thereby increasing AQAP’s recruiting pool. There is already evidence that this is happening.

If this is what a successful counterterrorism strategy looks like, we’d hate to see failure.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • mike merlo says:

    “…….Obama’s speech…..describing Somalia and Yemen as “successfully pursued” counterterrorism operations”…….”In the four plus months since Obama described Yemen as a successful engagement”……too funny, and people still haven’t figured out President Obama’s ‘template/standards’ for measuring success

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Good read. I think the article is right on. Although there is no easy solution to the jihadi(both sunni and shia) problem that is spreading throughout the arab world, the current administrations policies are not bearing fruit in any meaningful way. Again, they look at the problem as a policing problem, where others view it as a military problem. Regardless, what’s happening now is a realization of a historical schism between shia and sunni doctrines. My belief is that the west should be very careful about getting involved in this muslim civil war. We have limited influence at this time. We can shape things, but must do so covertly. I really am relieved that Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, unilaterally I might add. If Mursi was still in power, it would have been a disaster for the west and would have had significant repercussions felt for several decades. Obama’s perspective of Islam is based on his experience as an expat in Indonesia. That has nothing to do with the Wahabis, who are running wild at this time. Spend a few years in Saudi and/or Iran, and you would probably have a different take.

  • Mike in San Diego says:

    This needs to be on every newspapers editorial page! Great work!


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