SANAA (Reuters) - Schoolboy Mohammed Taeiman died this week on a remote Yemeni road, a casualty of a U.S. drone campaign against the local branch of al Qaeda that seems to be sliding into disarray.
The sixth-grader’s death as he returned home with a family friend aroused the kind of anger that has long helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to recruit fighters.
But in recent months convulsions in Yemeni politics have pushed President Barack Obama’s strategy close to failure as the group, known locally as Ansar al-Shariah, has broken out of its mountain bastions to stage attacks across the country.
While the exact circumstances of Monday’s incident remain unclear, relatives say the boy was traveling in a car with the family friend, Abdullah al-Zindani, to his village in the central province of Marib.
Returning from visiting an acquaintance in southern Yemen, they were driving along a 160 km (100 mile) road that threads its way between mountains and desert. But just after 11 a.m., mobile phones of people in their home area began beeping with pictures showing the remains of a black Suzuki, hit by what appeared to have been a devastating force.
“Zindani’s name started circulating, and I knew my brother was with him,” said Mohammed’s 17-year-old brother, Ezz el-Deen. “My brother was not armed. Mohammed was killed, he was a child,” said Ezz el-Deen, who himself survived a drone strike that killed his father and brother in 2011.
“Bring justice to those who killed him otherwise we will cut off the oil, we will be saboteurs. We will join Ansar al-Shariah,” he yelled down the phone to Reuters.
The drone campaign against AQAP, Obama’s preferred tactic in fighting the Sunni Muslim group that claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris on Jan. 7, has always caused public anger in Yemen. Critics say the attacks often kill low-level militants and sometimes civilians, not the top plotters Washington says it goes after.
But AQAP has begun winning more allies among Yemen’s majority Sunnis since Shi’ite Houthi rebels began pushing into the capital Sanaa and other areas in September.
Last year, a Yemeni army campaign backed by U.S. drone strikes tried to dislodge AQAP from the south, where it had training camps in mountainous regions, mostly coexisting with local villagers.
But less than a year later, AQAP attacks have happened in provinces across Yemen, partly because militants were often allowed to leave their bastions in deals with tribesmen who did not want the army to fight in their backyards.
The rapid rise of the Iranian-allied Houthis as Yemen’s main power has prompted some Sunni tribes to join AQAP in fighting the Zaydi Shi‘ites, whom the militants view as heretics.
“The Sunni tribes are enemies of the Houthis but they can’t confront them alone,” said Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a local journalist who has contacts with AQAP. “For al Qaeda that is a big victory - for the tribes to join it in one war, that has never happened before.”
Evidence of this alliance is growing. Ibb and Hodeidah, two provinces that experienced little AQAP violence before the Houthis arrived, now suffer frequent attacks. In the coastal city of Hodeidah, port worker Sharaf al-Batool said “big operations” by al Qaeda had become a feature of life after the Houthis deployed there.
The Houthis say they are fighting AQAP to protect members of their community, but they are also stirring great resentment.
April Longley Alley, of the International Crisis Group, said the Houthis were winning some victories against al Qaeda. But if they did not help to build a legitimate state, they “are going to unintentionally strengthen (al Qaeda) recruitment,” she said.
Despite a power vacuum since President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned last week in a standoff with the Houthis, Monday’s drone strike in Marib suggests the campaign will continue.
Local officials had said three suspected al Qaeda militants were killed. It later emerged that one of them was the schoolboy. One tribal official has said Mohammed was also part of AQAP, despite his family’s denials.
The boy’s uncle, also named Mohammed, told Reuters that Zindani was a militant. “Zindani was Ansar al-Sharia. But he had no enmity towards anyone,” he said.
This may suggest why the car was targeted, but Zindani was by no means regarded as a senior militant. U.S. officials acknowledge increasing difficulty in gathering intelligence for the drone strikes.
Critics say murky intelligence from informants can lead to disasters. “America gives the spies a SIM card ... the SIM card is stuck on a car that has al Qaeda members inside it and then it’s hit after the spy gives a signal,” said Jamal. “(America) may not know who is being targeted specifically, but knows that there are people in this car who are al Qaeda.”
Brandon Bryant quit as a U.S. drone sensor operator in 2011, disillusioned by his mission. “We supposedly knew the ID of who owned the SIM or cell (phone), not who was currently in possession of it,” he told Reuters, describing this as “guesswork, still not enough to justify a targeted killing”.
“Drone strikes just make matters worse,” he said. “It insults our ‘enemy’ because we’re using an extreme technological advantage while at the same time keeping those that use it safe and out of harm’s way.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp