Following up on what I wrote yesterday about our missile attacks in Southern Yemen strengthening Al Qaeda, there is an unusually informative article in Time -- written by Abigail Hauslohner and based on her interview with Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University -- that provides substantial elaboration on this point. Noting that the U.S.-aided attack "appears to have resulted in a number of civilian casualties," the Time article details Johnsen's view that "last week's attacks would ultimately prove counterproductive":
[R]egardless of who did what, a primary target in the attacks -- Qasim al-Raymi, the al-Qaeda leader who is believed to be behind a 2007 bombing in central Yemen that killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemenis -- is still at large. And reports of a U.S. role, and mass civilian casualties at the sites of the attacks, have sparked a public outcry and added to anti-American sentiments across the country. "They missed that individual," says Johnsen of the targeted al-Qaeda chief. "And at the same time, they ended up killing a number of women and children in the strike on Abyan. So now you have something where there are all these pictures of dead infants and mangled children that are underlined with the caption 'Made in the USA' on all the jihadi forums. Something like this does much more to extend al-Qaeda."
Indeed through the backlash that followed, the attacks have started to look like more of a boon than a bust for Yemen's al-Qaeda revival, as well as for other opponents of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime. Iran -- which Yemen accuses of backing the Shi'ite Houthi rebellion in the north -- headlined the attacks on its state-sponsored Press TV with: "Obama ordered deadly blitz on Yemen."
"The al-Qaeda threat in Yemen is real, but now after this operation, it will be greater," says Mohammed Quhtan, a member of Yemen's opposition Islamist al-Islah party. "Al-Qaeda will be able to recruit a lot more young people, at least from the tribes that were hit. And it will have reasonable grounds to attract more people from Abyan governorate, and from the Yemeni population in general. . . . "If you're going to carry out [an attack] like this, you have to have done a great deal of field work, where you've sort of undermined al-Qaeda through development and aid so that when something like this happens, al-Qaeda can't easily replace the individuals that it has lost," says Johnsen. "But if you don't take those steps then the pool of recruits just starts to multiply exponentially."
So with this missile strike, we find yet again the most pervasive and destructive myth of American "counter-terrorism" efforts: that there's this finite worldwide club called "The Terrorists" (also known as "al Qaeda"), and our solemn mission is to hunt down its members and kill them all, and once we do, there will be no more "Terrorists" and we will have won. Even at the peak of America's warmongering hysteria in mid-2003, even Donald Rumsfeld knew enough to worry that more terrorists were being recruited and created than we were killing. The Pentagon's 2004 independent Task Force emphatically concluded that our acts of violence in the Muslim world were fueling -- not undermining -- Islamic radicalism. Mountains of other evidence demonstrate the same conclusion.
What's particularly confounding about our continuing on this path is that Obama is well aware of this causal relationship. He's repeatedly acknowledged it, and taken numerous steps -- from outreach efforts to the Muslim world to changing the tone of our foreign policy to trying to close Guantanamo -- that are all grounded in his accurate belief that decreasing anti-American sentiment is a prerequisite for improving American national security and combating Islamic extremism. Yet as we actively wage war in more and more predominantly Muslim countries -- even as some of these strikes kill real, actual Al Qaeda fighters -- all of those symbolic efforts will be swamped by the far more potent images of innocent Muslims we are killing. The threat of Terrorism is what fuels everything from civil liberties erosions to extreme government secrecy to endless war. Yet (or "therefore") the very policies we pursue in the name of stemming its tide so plainly have the opposite effect.