At the end of next week, amid an increasingly contentious debate about Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and elsewhere, the Trump administration owes Congress a report that may begin to answer hard questions about the nature of U.S., Saudi, and Emirati actions in Yemen – against the Houthis, but also against our terrorist adversaries there.
The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed on August 13, requires the defense secretary to submit to Congress within 120 days a report on whether the “armed forces or coalition partners of the United States violated federal law or Department of Defense (DOD) policy while conducting operations in Yemen.” The NDAA language is constructed broadly, to capture the entirety of U.S. operations in Yemen, but a close read makes clear that it is just as much about accountability for U.S. counterterrorism operations in the country – particularly lingering questions about U.S. complicity in torture of suspected terrorists by forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – as it is about U.S. military support to the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels. With this report, we may begin to have some fruitful dialogue about the specific legal and moral compromises we have made by going all in with the UAE in exchange for progress against terrorist groups in Yemen.
Media reporting and public discussion around the U.S. counterterrorism war in Yemen has been largely muted amid concerns about the larger humanitarian horror of the Saudi-Houthi war, but during a closed door briefing last week on U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers that one of the reasons the United States has continued providing aid is to counter terrorist groups in the country.
“All we would achieve from an American drawdown is a stronger Iran and a reinvigorated ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” he said, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks released by the State Department.
Then, for political flourish, Pompeo added, “Try defending that outcome back home.”
The scare tactics from the former Republican congressman and Trump loyalist were not surprising, but his statement is revealing. Several government officials have recently acknowledged, however quietly, that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is now a shadow of its former self. That welcome news is mostly due – at least over the past two years – to a deepened U.S. partnership with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s lower profile co-belligerent in the Yemen war. Yet despite the progress against AQAP, the backstory of the partnership with the Emiratis raises tough questions about the durability and ethics of proxy warfare in Yemen, especially when our partners don’t fully share our objectives or values.
President Donald Trump’s first significant action on counterterrorism once in office was to dial up the pressure in Yemen by leaning into the partnership with the UAE. During his first week in the White House, he authorized a joint U.S.-Emirati raid in Yemen that went awry, leaving Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and several Yemeni civilians dead. The raid and its outcome raised serious questions about how the new administration was going to manage counterterrorism deployments. (Subsequent deaths of U.S. special operators in Somalia and the Sahel reinforced these concerns.) Yet while commentators, myself included, focused on the president’s mismanagement of high-risk operations, the administration was, for the most part, continuing and intensifying the counterterrorism playbook the Obama administration had established in Yemen over the previous year.
U.S.-Emirati cooperation, which began during the Obama administration and was responsible for successfully wresting the eastern port city of Mukallah from AQAP control in April 2016, appears to have deepened even after the disastrous January 2017 raid. U.S. advisers continued supporting Emirati forces and local Yemeni partners in combating the remains of AQAP in the eastern governorate of Hadramawt. And while U.S. officials provided limited commentary on the rationale for a surge of 80 U.S. strikes across central and southern Yemen in the spring of 2017 — far and away the largest surge of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen ever – it appeared designed to cripple AQAP infrastructure and potentially reinforce Emirati military operations in the region.
In 2018, U.S. military operations in Yemen against AQAP have continued at less intensive levels than in 2017, but they seem to follow the same playbook — operational support to the Emiratis and local partners fighting on the ground and targeted airstrikes against key terrorist operatives. This past summer, the United States notched one of its biggest counterterrorism victories ever in Yemen, when a U.S. strike killed Ibrahim al-Asiri, the highly elusive master bombmaker who was reportedly behind AQAP plots to bring down U.S. airlines. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell called the death of Asiri, whom the United States had pursued for nearly a decade, the most significant terrorist death since Osama bin Laden.
The results of these operations — carried out across two administrations — appear to be a degradation of AQAP and the successful prevention of ISIS from gaining ground in Yemen. In October, Russ Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center said, “[AQAP] has been diminished this year by the loss of fighters and skilled personnel, but the group continues to launch attacks against its rivals while generating media products that urge extremists to target the West.”
It was not exactly a declaration of victory, but it was a far cry from earlier warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that AQAP was the “most dangerous” al-Qaeda affiliate, intent on launching complex attacks against the American homeland. The National Strategy for Counterterrorism, also released in October, did not even mention AQAP by name, an omission made all the more notable by the strategy’s explicit reference to third tier groups like the little known Nordic Resistance Movement. The annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in February, is similarly circumspect, noting that regional al-Qaeda affiliates, including AQAP, are most likely to focus on local operations and inspiring, rather than directing, attacks abroad.
The overall story of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen is one of cautious success amid the broader disaster of the country’s civil war and the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in it. Yet, in peeling back the cover on these accomplishments, major moral and legal concerns emerge over how we achieved them.
The cracks in this good news story began in late spring 2017, when reports emerged that our Emirati partners in eastern Yemen were engaged in indiscriminate detention and active torture of detainees as part of their broader counterterrorism efforts in the region. The reports raised serious questions as to how much U.S. forces on the ground — as well as their superiors in Tampa, Fl., and Washington, D.C. — knew about the abuses and whether they had done anything meaningful to stop them. Congressional leaders briefly expressed outrage and called on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to investigate, but those calls for public accountability largely receded after receiving a closed door explanation from Mattis.
In July, remarkable on-the-ground reporting from The Washington Post, a rarity in Yemen since the onset of the Saudi-Houthi war, documented further fissures in the Emirati grasp on southern and eastern Yemen. The local population was growing frustrated with the UAE’s heavy-handed tactics and its failure to resolve longstanding political issues. Then, an October story from Buzzfeed reported that the Emiratis had hired contractors, including former U.S. special operations forces, to carry out targeted killings of terrorists in southern Yemen, raising a bevy of legal and ethical questions.
For all the challenges the Emiratis have faced in governing southern and eastern Yemen, AQAP has yet to re-emerge. The reason could stem purely from Emirati operational effectiveness, but reporting from August raises an alternative — and far more troubling — explanation. Journalists from the Associated Press and the Pulitzer Center reported that the Emiratis and Saudis have cut deals with al-Qaeda in order to leverage them in the fight against the Houthis. This includes, “paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash…Hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.” The allegations that a U.S. partner could be allying with al-Qaeda should have been ground shaking and yet amid the larger daily horrors of Yemen and the crazy Washington news cycle, it barely registered as a blip.
With this steady drip of troubling news, we are now face-to-face with the pitfalls of proxy warfare, even with partners who appear as operationally competent as the Emiratis. I will leave it to others to address the legal question of whether our support to the UAE violates any statutes, but we are at least dangerously close to being morally complicit in their misdeeds. Indeed, the set of reports about the Emiratis are like a rehash of the major post-9/11 counterterrorism controversies, practices that had mostly been brought to a halt, at least for the United States.
The detention-related allegations raise familiar questions about U.S. complicity in rendition, black sites and torture. The potential use of mercenaries in a war zone is reminiscent of the days of Blackwater roaming Iraq with virtual impunity. The possibility that the UAE is cutting deals with AQAP reminds one of Pakistani double dealing with the Taliban. Whether or not the American public recognizes the ominous precursors here, no doubt the Yemeni public and others in the region easily remember the uglier moments of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign following 9/11. And with every passing month that the U.S. government offers no public explanation of its partnership with the Emiratis, or how we are steering clear of their worst abuses, we are back in the opaque early days of the Global War on Terror, urged to just trust those who operate in the shadows and to turn a blind eye to the compromises they have to make to keep America safe.
But with the DOD report due to Congress next week, there may be some opportunity for accountability. To be sure, the problems with Emirati counterterrorism efforts pale in comparison with the damage the UAE and Saudi Arabia have inflicted in the Yemeni civil war. Still, as a key U.S. counterterrorism partner, we bear a special responsibility to ensure this relationship is as functional and ethical as possible. For starters, expanded congressional oversight should include a thorough accounting of U.S. involvement in the Emirati detention program, something that Congress previously promised, but did not begin to act on until passing the NDAA more than a year after the initial allegations of abuse emerged. The NDAA asks all the right questions – about the facts on the ground, the nature of U.S. involvement, and assurances the UAE may have provided – but the hard work on the Hill will take place after the report is delivered, when congressional overseers may need to develop new policies to keep U.S. forces far away from abusive treatment of detainees and ensure that our partners make and stick to key assurances.
Congress should similarly pressure the Trump administration to review the reported Emirati use of American mercenaries and whether this violates U.S. law, as several human rights groups and colleagues have urged. Key committees should look into the reports of deals being cut with AQAP and particularly whether any such support violates U.S. statutes or policies prohibiting support to terrorism. And as with the detention issue, Congress should commit to hard work to prevent future transgressions from the UAE and other partners, including by being willing to reshape, suspend, or sever those partnerships as needed. This is not easy; the UAE has been a stalwart U.S. partner for years, and years of U.S. training and UAE investment have created a highly effective Emirati counterterrorism force. We rely on them in Yemen and beyond, and policymakers will have to grapple with how to maintain counterterrorism pressure while holding the UAE to account. But the list of alleged Emirati misdeeds is too serious to give them the free pass Pompeo and others in the administration seem to suggest.
Finally, Congress should urge the administration to maximize transparency around our counterterrorism war in Yemen. Absent positive administration steps in this direction, Congress should release its own accounting of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, perhaps building on DOD’s detention and interrogation report. Such a move toward public transparency would explore the legal and policy parameters bounding our efforts and account for any misdeeds that may have unfortunately happened under our watch, but it should also put into context for the American people and the world what we’re doing in Yemen and why we are putting our people in harm’s way in pursuit of our goals. Increased accountability and transparency should not be focused on undercutting support for counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Given the threats we have seen over the past nine years and al-Qaeda’s history of re-emerging after previous declines in Yemen, we cannot afford to take our eye off terrorist threats in Yemen. But it’s clearly time to take stock of our efforts and our partners, clarify our purpose, and publicly recommit to conducting this counterterrorism campaign at the high standards of accountability that have come to define U.S. operations since the end of the Bush administration.
Indeed, given the tremendous (and rightful) public distrust in the Saudi-led coalition and calls for the United States to pull out of the civil war in Yemen – which is sure to be conflated with the separate U.S. counterterrorism operations being conducted there – such a public education is more important than ever. To do anything less is to undermine our laudable gains against AQAP, condone the worst actions from our partners, and only invite a resurgence of the threat in years to come.