The unexpected appearance of an unarmed, conventional U.S. aircraft only added fuel to already simmering online opposition to the American UAV campaign. “It caused a [public relations] nightmare,” a Yemeni official in Washington says, referring to the audible drone emanating from the -made P-3 Orion circling overhead.
Some panicked Sanaa residents mistook the unidentifiable object for one of theor CIA-operated UAVs that had reportedly killed four suspected Al Qaeda suspects earlier that morning, including one featured on the “25 Most-Wanted Terrorists” list announced by Yemen's supreme security committee.
Despite the image problems created by the aircraft, the Yemeni official says it works. “It's perfect for pin-pointing and intercepting signals. On the spot. Instantly,” the official says. “We need it.”
The escalation of U.S. security actions in Yemen accompanied the's Aug. 2 worldwide travel alert, warning of the increased potential for terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa and the temporary closure of 19 U.S. embassies and consulates, including in Sanaa.
The extra precautions taken here are a function of the Yemeni government's acknowledged inability to contain Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings divided the government and military forces. This culminated in the transfer of power from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who served for 33 years, to his deputy of almost two decades, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, in February 2012.
Despite a year and a half of reforms and capacity-building efforts under Hadi, the Yemeni official says, “We don't have a functioning military.”
AQAP's insurgent tactics during this period have further raised its profile as the principal terrorist threat to U.S. homeland security, owing to a series of attempts to bomb U.S. bound-airliners, beginning with the “underwear bomb” plot on Dec. 25, 2009.
Washington responded to that near-miss with record levels of counterterrorism aid, totaling $181 million in fiscal 2010. The majority of the funds, allocated from the Defense Department's Section 1206 train-and-equip authority created in the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, benefitted Yemen's dilapidated air force with the purchase of four Bell Huey II helicopters, upgrades and parts for about 10 existing helicopters and a CASAtwin-turboprop transport aircraft upgraded with intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (Istar) capabilities.
Two single-turbopropC208s purchased under Section 1206 Authority in fiscal 2012 will be furnished with weapons and a signals-intelligence system comparable to the P-3 Orion, the Yemeni official confirms.
Last summer, U.S. officials told Aviation Week that they expected the C208s' eight pilots and eight maintainers, along with the CN235's six pilots and 22 maintainers, to be finished with training and ready for combat in Yemen by June or July of this year. But deteriorated security conditions since 2011 have forced virtually all military-to-military cooperation to take place outside of Yemen, which has contributed to delays.
When the short-takeoff-and-landing transports eventually do arrive, they will be in high demand. Yemen's elite U.S.-trained and -equipped counterterrorism forces have been largely unable to reach remote high-altitude areas where AQAP sanctuaries are concentrated due to the dearth of both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The number of helicopters now on hand, according to the Yemeni official, can barely mobilize units in and around major cities. On Aug. 6, aggrieved tribesmen in Marib province east of Sanaa shot down a military helicopter responding to clashes involving the repair of state oil infrastructure that locals had sabotaged.
To accommodate these competing demands while accounting for U.S. budget constraints, U.S. Navy Naval Air Systems Command is seeking donor support for the purchase of five additional used transports—three CN235s and two Lockheed 100s—in fiscal 2013.
According to Yemen's state news agency, SABA, the Pentagon announced in early July a military assistance package to Yemeni border guards, which includes 12 Seabird Seeker light observation aircraft equipped with electro-optic and infrared sensors enabling night-vision capabilities and an integrated air-ground-maritime communication infrastructure, which will include 48 maritime, land- and vehicle-based surveillance stations. SABA stated that the aircraft have been designated to counter arms- and drugs-smuggling, as well as thwart terrorist militants sneaking into the country.
How much of an impact these investments will make is unclear, however, given the volume of contraband flowing ashore along Yemen's 1,906-km (1,184-mi.) coastline and across its porous 1,458-km land border with Saudi Arabia. The $40 million counterterrorism package is part of fiscal 2013 Section 1206 Authority outlays, according to a Pentagon statement. The ongoing show of U.S. air power is a direct reflection of Yemen's divided, under-trained and under-equipped security forces in the face of these challenges.
Yet, despite 11 reported U.S. UAV attacks since July 27, which Hadi said in an Aug. 22 speech had killed 40 militants, AQAP's senior operational leadership appears to remain intact. In the speech at Sanaa's police academy, Hadi defended the legitimacy of the U.S. UAV campaign and announced he had requested this technology from Washington.
One significant effect of the combined upsurge in kinetic and non-kinetic aerial tactics has been to raise AQAP's operational risk while shrinking its operational freedom. In response to the conspicuous presence of the P-3 Orion, for example, AQAP operatives were forced to limit all forms of electronic communication. According to a Yemeni intelligence source, this may have helped avert planned and potential attacks in the capital. Indeed, AQAP's senior religious figure attributed the recent death of the organization's co-founder and second-in-command, Said al-Shihri, to a U.S. UAV strike that had detected his mobile-phone signal.
The alleged promotion of AQAP's founding leader, Nassir al-Wuhayshi, to general manager of global Al Qaeda operations—roughly the equivalent of consigliere to Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman Zawahari—may have been linked to the Aug. 2 threat alert. As a result of the leadership shake-up, command of Yemen's franchise has devolved to AQAP's notorious Saudi bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who, like Shihri last November, reportedly survived an Aug. 10 UAV strike in southern Lahj province that killed two others, though U.S. officials have yet to definitively confirm or deny those reports.
In the meantime, according to the Yemeni official, Hadi is willing and able to sustain heavy UAV strikes. “Tier 2 [militants] are freaking out,” the official says. “AQAP wants revenge.”