But the enemy keeps changing
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 9, militants in Yemen — widely believed be members or allies of the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shi’ite political movement — fired missiles at the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mason and the amphibious mothership Ponce in the Bab Al Mandab Strait. On Oct. 11, at least one more cruise missile struck the water near Mason.
Four days after the initial incident, Mason’s sister ship USS Nitze lobbed Tomahawk cruise missiles of its own at radar sites in what the Pentagon described as “Houthi-controlled territory” in western Yemen.
“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook stated. “The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate.”
But Washington is hardly an innocuous bystander who just happened to get to close to Yemen’s current crisis. The attempted missile strikes on Mason underscore the increasingly confused and contradictory goals in Washington and allied capitals when it comes to Yemen.
America’s interest in Yemen isn’t new. U.S. forces have repeatedly attacked Al Qaeda’s regional franchise in the small Middle East country for more than a decade now.
On Sept. 30, 2011, a U.S. drone killed Anwar Awlaki in Yemen’s Al Jawf governorate. Born and raised in the United States and fluent in English, Awlaki had become a prominent spokesman and recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a.k.a. AQAP.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies linked the New Mexico-born preacher’s calls for violence to underwear-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Fort Hood-shooter Nidal Hassan. The drone strike that killed Awlaki also claimed the life of another American citizen, Samir Khan.
And in a separate attack on suspected Al-Qaeda fighters less than a month later, pilotless planes killed Anwar’s teenage son Abdulrahman Awlaki, who was also a U.S. national.
The United States had been hitting Yemen for years before it targeted Awlaki. On Dec. 17, 2009 under the auspices of Operation Copper Dune, American warships fired cruise missiles loaded with cluster bombs at the village of Al Majala in Yemen’s Abyan province.
But the intel was bad. More than 40 civilians died under the bombardment. Diplomatic cables that U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning leaked to Wikileaks include discussions between U.S. officials and their Yemeni counterparts about covering up the Pentagon’s involvement.
After the Awlaki attack, on Dec. 12, 2013, American unmanned attackers again missed the mark, blowing apart a convoy of vehicles carrying a wedding party. The strike killed another 13 innocents.
Deadly mistakes and questions over the legality of killing Americans on foreign soil hardly slowed the Pentagon’s campaign in Yemen. Before Awlaki’s demise, Washington had branded the Yemeni Al-Qaeda faction one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on the planet.
In testimony before the U.S. senate on March 6, 2014, Army general Lloyd Austin, then the Pentagon’s top officer for the Middle East, warned legislators of “a growing AQAP threat.”
“We will persist in our efforts to strengthen our relationship in the face of the very serious threat posed by terrorists groups operating out of ungoverned spaces,” Austin said.
By August 2014, the Pentagon had at least two named military operations in Yemen, according to a list War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. We did not ask for, and did not receive, any descriptions of any of these missions or their objectives.
One of the operations is Copper Dune. The other is a previously unacknowledged effort dubbed Yukon Viking.
In 2014, the Pentagon’s Global Broadcast Service had been “delivering real-time UAV video to combatant commands … leading to elimination of many terrorists/targets,” an annual review of the program explained. “A specific example is … Yemen Yukon Viking operations.”
All of these missions — and especially the Yukon Viking drone strikes — were aimed squarely at AQAP. Though Washington fretted over Iranian support for the Houthis, the Pentagon viewed the Shi’ite movement as a tertiary threat.
Fast forward to the end of 2014 and the situation in Yemen had changed dramatically. With support from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and elements within the Yemeni army, the Houthis drove the new — and internationally-recognized — president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi out after taking over the capital Sana’a in September 2014.
Six months later, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened, pummeling Yemen from the air in an attempt to put Hadi back in charge. An equally brutal ground campaign followed shortly thereafter.
As far as Washington is aware, Saudi Arabia “desires a stable Yemen with a pro-Saudi government that effectively protects its border, prevents an Iranian proxy from gaining undue influence over strategic terrain that includes the Bab Al Mandeb [Strait], and protects against safe havens for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Austin noted in his March testimony.
Unfortunately, the conflict opened the door for AQAP to reassert itself. To make matters worse, an Islamic State faction also popped up.
“A large security vacuum … has greatly benefited AQAP, as well as the newly-formed ISIL affiliate, ISIL-Yemen,” Austin told senators at another hearing in March 2016. “AQAP is strengthening and expanding.”
Washington insisted it was not an active participant in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. Instead, American forces continued to strike mostly at AQAP.
Since February 2016, American drones and manned aircraft have carried out more than a dozen attacks on the terrorist group, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. On March 22, one official statement claimed an air strike killed more than 70 members of the group at a training camp in an unspecified location.
Unfortunately for Washington, separating Riyadh’s attempt to suppress the Houthis from the campaign against AQAP and Islamic State simply isn’t working. For their part, the Houthis fail to see any difference.
“The direct American attack targeting Yemeni soil this morning is not acceptable,” Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for Saleh-allied Yemeni troops allied with the Houthis, told the movement’s Saba news agency. “Yemen has the right to defend itself and we would deal with any development with the right steps.”
On top of that, since April 2015, U.S. Air Force tankers have poured more than 40 million pounds of fuel into Riyadh’s and other coalition fighter-bombers on their way to attack Houthi positions. Until August 2016, American officials helped the Saudi-led forces to pick out targets to bomb.
On three occasions between March and April 2016, the U.S. Navy also stopped ships bound for Yemen, seizing the weapons and ammunition on board. The Pentagon claimed the shipments originated in Iran and were headed for Houthi forces.
And the only reason Mason and Nitze were in the area in the first place was due to an earlier anti-ship missile attack on a vessel from the United Arab Emirates’ National Marine Dredging Company. On Oct. 1, the Houthis announced they had severely damaged the ship, formerly a U.S. Navy warship called the Swift.
For its part, the UAE has been fighting both the Houthis and AQAP. In April, American commandos arrived in Yemen and paired up with the Emirati forces to hit at Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Ostensibly, the elite U.S. troops were only there to help on a short-term effort to eject the terrorists from parts of southern Yemen. Three months later, Washington decided the team would remain “indefinitely,” a report from Vice News claimed.
Regardless, the refueling of coalition jets, seizure of Houthi arms-deliveries and response to the attack on the ex-Swift had nothing to do with AQAP or other terrorist groups. Beyond the self-defense claim in response to the missile attacks, the Pentagon’s justification — legal or otherwise — for these activities is unclear.
After militants took their potshots at Mason, the Pentagon likely turned to the drones, manned spy planes, satellites or other tools already in position to find Al Qaeda fighters. Commandos on the ground or local forces could have provided important details, too.
We don’t know if any such intelligence gathering was technically part of Copper Dune, Yukon Viking or another named mission. But within 48 hours, American forces had located potential radar sites that could have been used to guide anti-ship cruise missiles, fired their own missiles and started assessing the damage, according to Pentagon statements.
Such a quick response points to systems already in position or existing information on hand from prior counterterrorism operations. Of course, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies also maintain databases of points of interest around the world for targeting and other purposes — just in case.
Washington may be forced to confront the uncomfortable reality of these increasingly inseparable activities in Yemen. On Oct. 15, 2016, Mason apparently came under attack yet again.
“Earlier today, a U.S. strike group transiting international waters in the Red Sea detected possible inbound missile threats and deployed appropriate defensive countermeasures,” Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross, a Navy commander, told U.S. Naval Institute News, notably declining to mention any specific Yemeni group.
“Our sailors and ships are unharmed, and we are still assessing the situation,” Ross added.
Shortly after the second attack on Mason, Tehran complicated matters by announcing plans to send two warships to the region. Iran’s aging frigate Alvand and the equally-old support ship Bushehr are headed toward the Yemeni coast, officially to fight piracy.
What seems clear is that the Pentagon is actively engaged in Yemen, has been so for some time and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future. Who exactly the enemies will be — at least officially — isn’t so obvious.