A US airstrike on a training camp in Yemen that killed more than 50 jihadists two weeks ago targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s local operations, not its external operations network, an AQAP commander claimed. While the AQAP commander’s statement may be technically true, it ignores the fact that jihadist groups’ local and foreign operations support each other, and both pose a threat to the West.
AQAP “commander” Sa’ad bin ‘Atef al Awlaki said that the March 22 airstrike in Mukallah in the eastern province of Hadramout hit a “general camp in which volunteers train to fight the Houthis and the ousted Ali Saleh,” and posed no threat to US national security, as claimed by the Pentagon. Awlaki made the claim in a statement that was released yesterday by the Al Malahem Media Foundation, AQAP’s official propaganda outlet. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“[The Pentagon’s] spokesman claimed that the airstrike targeted an al Qaeda camp that posed danger to America’s national security and interests, disregarding the confirmed information that proved that this camp is a general camp in which volunteers train to fight the Houthis and the ousted Ali Saleh,” Awlaki said.
Awlaki then questioned the US military’s motives, and said that the aim of the US air campaign in Yemen and elsewhere was part of a wider war against Muslims worldwide.
There is no way to independently verify Awlaki’s claim that the camp was used to exclusively train AQAP fighters who are tasked to fight its local war in Yemen. However, the statement masks the fact that jihadist groups use their local insurgencies to bolster their external operations.
As groups like AQAP gain control of territory, they use the resources of these proto-states to support all of its operations. In the past, al Qaeda has used its network of training facilities to train fighters to battle in local insurgencies, identify potential recruits for attacks against the West, and support a host of allied jihadist groups. Thus, camps such as the one hit on March 22 do indeed pose a threat to US national security.
But Awlaki’s statement highlights a fundamental flaw in the US government’s messaging when it comes to justifying airstrikes against jihadist groups.
In 2013, the US Department of Justice said attacks against al Qaeda and allied forces in foreign countries where the US was not actively engaged in combat were justified if those targeted “present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States.” The US has warranted numerous airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria by claiming that those targeted presented a direct and imminent threat to the US.
The Long War Journal has documented multiple strikes that do not appear to meet the criteria outlined by the Department of Justice. For instance, one drone strike in Yemen in 2015 targeted a container packed with weapons that was lotted by AQAP. Additionally, the so-called “signature strikes,” where the CIA launches drone strikes based on patterns of activities in the hopes of killing senior leaders or operatives, contravenes the “imminent threat” doctrine.
The US government, military, and intelligence services would be better served to explain the nature of the threat posed by local jihadist operations such as AQAP to the US. The reality is that thes elocal networks are ultimately providing the manpower and infrastructure to support their external operations network worldwide.