Thank you Saudi Arabia for expanding drone war in Yemen

That’s what a good, autocratic ally does for America; remain dictatorial while “fighting terrorism”. The New York Review of Books:

The United States is quietly being drawn into an escalating conflict in Yemen. Following the discovery earlier this month of a new bomb plot aimed at American airliners, the US government has been aiming drones at alleged members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at an unprecedented rate. Last week, US and Yemeni officials… revealed… that US special operations forces are on the ground in Yemen and that more may be on the way. Meanwhile AQAP, the Yemen-based organization now regarded by some officials as one of the principal terrorist threats to the United States, has stepped up attacks around the country, including asuicide bombing… in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on Monday, that killed at least sixty people.

The new conflict may be as much about Saudi Arabia, the longtime US ally and Yemen’s northern neighbor, as it is about Yemen. To its continuing embarrassment, Saudi Arabia has long been known as the country that produced Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers. In recent years, the Saudi government has done much to reverse that image, in part by dramatically beefing up its own counterterrorism credentials and by becoming one of Washington’s key backers in the war against Al Qaeda. And yet, as I learned during a visit to Riyadh and other Saudi cities this month, it has struggled to contain another reality: that many members of AQAP are Saudi nationals who have relocated to Yemen, where they have been able to operate in relative freedom.

What seems clear is that Saudi Arabia has become a key backer—and at times coordinator—of the accelerating US drone war and special operations offensive in Yemen, partly for its own security interests. Interior Ministry officials in Riyadh speak enthusiastically about the US drone program, and on May 12, drone strikes allegedly killed some eleven AQAP suspects,… two of them Saudi nationals. (It is worth noting, following the controversial killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki, that Saudi Arabia does not appear to have many qualms about killing its own citizens in Yemen.)

Perhaps most important for the Saudi government, a successful counterterrorism policy carries enormous political value amid the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Even more than democratization or regime change in the region, the Saudi rulers seem to fear instability and unpredictability: though they have reluctantly supported the transition of power in Yemen, they are particularly nervous about the kind of extremism that has emerged in neighboring countries like Iraq, Yemen, and now Syria, when uprisings turn into violent conflict or authority breaks down entirely—places where Saudi jihadists have often found new causes. “Syria will be tempting to al-Qaeda,” Abdulrahman Alhadaq, a Saudi counter terrorism official, said in a briefing in Riyadh. “We need to avoid another Iraq.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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