Is ‘Drone Blowback’ Really a Fallacy?

In Foreign Affairs, Christopher Swift attempts to debunk what he calls the “drone blowback fallacy.” After visiting Yemen and investigating the issue himself, he argues that US drone attacks aren’t a significant motivator of al-Qaeda recruits.

Last month, I traveled to Yemen to study how AQAP operates and whether the conventional understanding of the relationship between drones and recruitment is correct. While there, I conducted 40 interviews with tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources…But to my astonishment, none of the individuals I interviewed drew a causal relationship between U.S. drone strikes and al Qaeda recruiting. Indeed, of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al Qaeda more than they were hurting it.

…As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.

There is countervailing evidence of a very similar sort. The Washington Post reported in May precisely the opposite findings, although the methodologies appear to be similar.

an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

…”These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,'” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March.

The difference in results here probably has a lot to do with the demographics of people each investigation targeted for questioning, as well as the questions asked. I don’t doubt that, as Swift’s analysis provides, many al-Qaeda recruits in Yemen do it for economic reasons. But there seems to be evidence agreeing with the Post’s findings embedded within Swift’s findings. Swift reports that “ordinary Yemenis see the drones as an affront to their national pride.” Well, yes, affronts to national pride have been known throughout history to motivate revenge attacks. A tribal militia commander explained to Swift that Yemenis could “accept [drones] as long as there are no more civilian casualties.” Except that they continue to kill civilians and those ill-defined as militants.

The reality is that the evidence supporting the notion that al-Qaeda recruits are motivated by drones gets even more concrete. The so-called Christmas Day Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted a botched suicide attack on an American airliner. It is widely understood to be one of the closest calls in the catalogue of post-9/11 terrorist attacks. Abdulmutallab explicitly cited drones and general US militarism in Yemen and other Muslim countries to be a motivating factor in his attack.  In his court statement, Abdulmutallab said it was “in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine, especially in the blockade of Gaza, and in retaliation for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants.” Abdulmutallab claimed to have made contact with Anwar al-Awlaki. Here’s was Awlaki had to say about the Christmas Day plot: “The more crimes America commits the more mujahedeen will be recruited to fight against it. The operation of our brother Umar Farouk was in retaliation to American cruise missiles and cluster bombs that killed the women and children in Yemen.”

Let’s also consider the other most high-profile attempted attack on US soil, carried out by Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square Bomber. In his court statement, Shahzad said he wanted to put a stop to “the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan and…the occupation of Muslim lands.” Killing American civilians in Times Square was justified, he said, because the drones, “they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims….I am part of the answer to the US terrorising the Muslim nations. I’m avenging the attacks…”

Abdulmutallab was a Nigerian who flew to various countries in order to get involved in the Yemen-inspired jihad against US aggression, while Shahzad was a Pakistani American who was in Pakistan’s tribal areas during drone strikes. Admittedly, they are not the typical Yemenis turning to al-Qaeda. And we should not be too surprised if those Yemenis interviewed by Swift did not explicitly draw a connection between drones and al-Qaeda recruitment. Most of those Yemenis are very poor, very uneducated and are faced with, as Swift puts it, “the best of several bad options” with al-Qaeda, which has been trying very hard to provide services and a chance out of poverty for loyal locals.

But clearly, they are not currently the greatest threat to the US. The closest things to successful terrorist attacks on the American homeland of late are the homegrown or Abdulmutallab type. The Yemeni locals who choose al-Qaeda in order to receive their $400 per month are the ones that will continue fighting an insurgency against US forces and US-trained Yemeni forces for the foreseeable future. But the real threat comes from people who want to avenge Washington’s constant bloodletting and bombing in Yemen and beyond.

Experts generally agree that the constant drone strikes in Yemen do serve as a recruitment tool for al-Qaeda and are successful as such. And as the Yemeni youth activist Ibrahim Mothana recently wrote in the New York Times, “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.” Swift’s case is hardly closed and shut. It’s well known that drone attacks in Pakistan have spawned a generation of anti-American sentiment. And the Yemen situation is still evolving.

Update: Just to add one more thing which should be obvious but often needs reiteration in debates like these, the issue of blowback is not necessarily the fundamental issue in the context of the Obama administration’s drone strikes. Even if Swift’s conclusions were true, which they obviously aren’t, and there was no risk of blowback, it would still be outrageously unacceptable for the President of the United States to create kill lists, launch drone strikes into non-warzones, against people they suspect of having ties to militant groups even though they can’t even identify their targets most of the time. The fact that this is strategically counterproductive is secondary to its moral and legal offense.