On Drones: Yemeni Americans, Yemenis and Americans

This Monday, Aljazeera Stream held a conversation with journalist Jeremy Scahill to discuss his latest book, "Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield". The book is over 615 pages and "focuses on America's expanding covert wars and the White House claiming the legal authority to kill U.S. citizens". Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American/Yemeni clerk, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen and is a central figure in Scahill's book. He is the third American killed in Yemen by a drone, the other two are: Samir Khan and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, Anwar's 16 year old son.

After our conversation, it became apparent that the US has no intention of "capturing enemies" because they wouldn't know what to do with them. It is now a war of drones. Evan Cinq-Mars, a fellow speaker on the Stream, asked how this war will end. This is the question that everyone needs to be asking, because the use of drones is only helping AQAP recruit sympathizers which will lead to the use of more drones, and so on...


From left to right: Al-Awlaki's cousin, Activist Bushra Al Maqtari, and Rabyaah

There are obvious consequences to this policy (death, terror, etc) but, there is unrecognizable damage that could lead to sustained nonphysical conflict. There is a clash of cultures and Yemeni Americans are in the midst of it. They are rejected by association; in the US for being Arabs and maybe "terrorists" and in Yemen for being Western and for supporting "terrorists". The struggle within them is a reflection of the increasing tensions between the two countries.

The US and increasing tensions:

Due to the current economic recession, the US is only able to focus on anti-terrorism/security efforts in Yemen. The diplomats at the American Embassy in Yemen are restricted in movement to a small portion of Sana'a where they don't actually meet the real/average Yemeni. It is understandable why Americans would be cautious, especially after the shameful attacks on the US Embassy in Libya and the resulting assassination of the Ambassador there. However, the primary role of embassies is to practice diplomacy and with so many restrictions, it is illogical to expect sincere communication between the two countries.

Prior to 1990, the US was primarily focused on its security. Its foreign policy included countering the former USSR (the South of Yemen, a separate country prior to 1990, was Marxist and an ally of USSR). After unification in 1990, the US focused on some development and educational/cultural exchange programs. There are two challenges facing US-Yemeni relations.

First, the development programs were concentrated on the Northern parts of Yemen while the majority of the drone strikes and AQAP activity is carried out in the South. The role of the US prior to the Arab Spring focused on supporting leaders in the Middle East who, in Yemen's case, weren't interested in the overall welfare of their people. To Southern separatists, former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is an ally of the US but the main enemy. Currently, Southern separatist leaders are snubbed by the Yemeni government and the drone strikes carried out by the US in Southern regions of Yemen exacerbate the tensions.

It appears to some Yemenis that the US continues to support regimes rather than the people. To make matters worse, the US educational exchange programs haven't increased and their efforts are upstaged by several other countries who are providing better opportunities to Yemenis. Furthermore, it is near impossible for Yemenis to obtain visas for travel to the US. Every male over the age of 18 is treated like a suspect and until proven innocent, he will remain in Yemen.

To be a Yemeni in America: 

Some Yemenis live in communities, close to each other and maintain a traditional lifestyle, but others, like me, like to integrate into American society. Over the past seven years, I have come to love this country. Throughout several interactions, it became clear that many Americans don't know anything about Yemen but that the country harbors terrorists. I have been examined carefully because I look and behave in a similar manner. Some would say: "You don't look like a Yemeni!" but since they don't know much about the country, no Yemeni will look like one.

Yemeni-Americans have to challenge the "terrorist" stereotype on a daily basis. This stereotype is harsh and Yemenis in the US are burdened with the responsibility of representing all Yemenis, not just themselves. When disaster strikes in the US, Yemenis across the world, but more specifically in the US pray that the attacker is not Yemeni, nor has ties to Yemen. Yemenis in the US don't need that kind of attention. So we spend our lives telling Americans about our architecture, our coffee, our sky-rises and our queens. But all of that doesn't matter when an event like the Boston Marathon bombing takes place. Reporting on the incident, Chris Matthews proves that stereotypes persist:

"To be blunt and not be into political profiling or racial profiling but when you look at a picture that we’re looking at now are there people in the FBI in the investigative world that can look at the picture, study it ethnographically and figure what the odds are on a fellow like that being from different parts of the world say YEMEN…”

While Yemenis are offended and angry, it is not an option to be so. They have to restrain their anger and accept it for the sake of their heritage. As Americans they love America and don't want it to get hurt. Finally, Yemenis in America, like other Americans, are just as terrified of AQAP.

The Role of Yemen:

In the early 1990s, the Yemeni government promised to care for its people. Prior to that, and after only a few years of ruling in the North, former President Saleh had the key to remain in power for what seemed like a lifetime. Democracy and free elections continued to be a notion that Yemenis talk about but not really experience especially since none of the neighboring countries were democracies (mostly monarchies or dictatorships).

With globalization and the advancement of technology, many things in Yemen changed. Regardless, Saleh continued to rule. The Yemeni government took responsibility for the first drones used against AQAP; not to make the US look good, but rather because Saleh knew that he was betraying his own people. Some accuse Saleh's regime of fostering terrorist groups in order to fill his pockets. Others accuse him of feeding Americans false intelligence in order to attack his own rivals. While these accusations may or may not be true, the fact was that the government was no longer responsible for what goes on in its own land with its own people.

Today, President Abdurabbu Mansour Hadi is expected to meet the demands of the Yemeni people. While he needs to deal with the economic recession, poverty, famine, lack of security, etc. He is still expected to protest the excessive use of drones in Yemen (at least against signature strikes). In a separate conversation, a fellow Yemeni pointed out that president Hadi doesn't have a lot of leverage with the US because they are his main "backers", leaving his hands tied. Still, Scahill's statement resonates with me: "We need to hold our own government accountable"...

To be an American in Yemen:

My last trip to Yemen was in August of 2012 and anti-American sentiments were at an all time high. It was clear that the majority of Yemenis felt let down by their own government but even clearer that they were more so by the US. To them, liberal voices in the United States are silent on the killings carried out by drones on innocent lives. In turn, the liberals in Yemen, abandoned their American counterpart.

When Yemeni-Americans go back to Yemen, they become responsible for representing the values of America in Yemen. In his testimony on drones before congress, Farea' Al-Muslimi states:

"I went to the U.S. as an ambassador for Yemen. I came back to Yemen as an ambassador of the U.S."
When Yemeni-Americans are in Yemen, they feel the need to represent America well. They explain to Yemenis that what they see is a product of fear. Yemenis need to realize that these reactions do not reflect the sentiments of the American people. What Yemenis view as the US is nothing more than the implementation of a policy decided by branch within the US government: not even the entirety of the US government agree on it. However, these facts become harder to swallow as the heedless use of drones continues to increase.

The solution:

American Diplomats in Yemen are in a tough place. President Hadi is in a tough place. People in the US are scared of terrorism and Yemenis are scared of drones. 

No one can predict the end of this "war". The current tactics are futile; they are short term responses that postpone a real solution. To end these conflicts, we need to suspend militaristic realism, and we need to employ empathy and communication to foster amity in the long term. Finally, I have endless gratitude for Yemeni-Americans and Americans in Yemen who inspire peace rather than promote fear.