WADI ABIDA, Yemen (Reuters) - An afternoon tribal meeting in a remote desert valley in Yemen is interrupted by the unmistakable hum of an unmanned drone. The men, gathered in their chieftain’s courtyard, rise to look at the sky.
“I wish I had a weapon that could reach that aircraft,” tribesman Salim Hassan told the other men at the gathering as he squinted against the sunlight.
The drone is hunting for members of al Qaeda as part of the Yemeni government’s U.S.-backed crackdown on the group, launched after al Qaeda’s Yemen branch tried to bomb a Detroit-bound plane last December.
Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland and a neighbor to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, Yemen looked set to become al Qaeda’s latest launchpad for attacks in a strategic region vital to the shipment of oil and goods, and beyond.
But the government must tread carefully in Wadi Abida, in the volatile eastern province of Maarib, lest it alienates the very tribes it needs to engage if it is to defeat the militants who hide and train in their midst.
Until a few months ago, Wadi Abida’s harsh climate and impenetrable landscape meant militants could operate there relatively undisturbed. Impoverished and heavily armed, local tribes’ loyalty to the government had always been flimsy at best.
But tensions between the government and local tribes are growing in Wadi Abida, which is dominated by a vast expanse of sand but is also home to some of Yemen’s largest energy reserves; reserves the government needs to run one of the world’s poorest countries.
Earlier this year the valley, on the southern edge of the Empty Quarter, saw some of the heaviest fighting between government forces and militants yet and residents say drones still circle their area for hours every day.
The occasional attacks target militants, but have also struck civilians in the valley that is home to 40,000 people. In May, an errant air raid targeting al Qaeda killed five people, among them Jaber al-Shabwani, the province’s deputy governor who was mediating between the government and the militants.
“Now children and women are terrified and can’t sleep. After Jaber was hit, people are haunted. They expect the next strike to hit the innocent and not the fugitives,” his uncle, Saleh al-Shabwani, told Reuters.
The killing so angered Shabwani’s tribesmen that in the subsequent weeks they fought heavily with government security forces, twice attacking a major oil pipeline in Maarib.
Maarib’s governor, Naji al-Zaidi, told Reuters there were only a dozen or so militants, a mixture of Yemenis and other nationalities, hiding in his province. Zaidi insisted the drones only gather intelligence and are not involved in any attacks.
The cash-strapped government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh does not itself own any drones and Wadi Abida’s inhabitants -- along with many Yemenis elsewhere -- are in no doubt about who is behind these operations: Washington.
What is more, in this isolated part of Yemen, where the near-lunar landscape is dotted with only a few houses here and there, many believe the United States’ ultimate aim is to come and rule them and their land.
“People are worried. They feel they will be colonized like Iraq and Afghanistan,” local tribal chief Mabkhout al-Eradah said.
It would not be the first time U.S. drones hunted fugitives from the skies above Maarib. In 2002, a CIA drone flying over the province fired a missile that killed al Qaeda’s then leader in the southern Arabian Peninsula country, prompting a public outcry.
Yemen has fought al Qaeda on and off since before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, often with Washington’s help, but al Qaeda has continued to plan and carry out attacks both in Yemen and beyond.
In July 2007, a car bomb killed seven Spaniards who were visiting Maarib.
Four months after December’s attempted plane bombing, an al Qaeda video showed the would-be bomber, Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attending a militant training camp in the desert and apparently being given a martyr’s farewell. It was not clear where the footage was shot but it provided additional evidence that al Qaeda fighters operate with relative freedom in Yemen.
Its government, facing multiple political and economic challenges in different parts of the country, has always had to be careful in publicizing the extent of its cooperation with U.S. forces in order to keep public opinion in check.
Apart from battling against a resurgent al Qaeda wing, Yemen is also struggling to contain simmering unrest from a growing secessionist movement in the south. A six-year conflict with northern rebels only came to an end earlier this year, having displaced over 350,000 people.
The government is helpless in the face of grinding poverty and rampant unemployment, with more than 40 percent of Yemenis living on under $2 a day. Analysts see the ailing economy as a greater risk to Yemen’s stability than any security concerns.
“U.S. policy in the region is unpopular in Yemen, and Yemenis are very much politicized, so this is something the government does have to take into consideration,” said Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Center.
“At the moment the government is so much under pressure that they don’t want another source of trouble.”
Sanaa now denies direct U.S. involvement in the airstrikes on militants, despite Washington becoming increasingly frank.
In August, U.S. security officials said Washington was looking to increase air strikes against al Qaeda’s Yemen wing in an attempt to emulate what they consider a successful CIA-run programme using drones in Pakistan.
The Yemeni government was quick to dispute these statements, insisting Yemen did not need “foreign parties” to lead its fight against al Qaeda -- assertions that stood in contrast to previous pleas for assistance from abroad.
When the Obama administration gave the CIA the green light to kill or capture a leading figure with links to al Qaeda, the American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen’s prime minister responded by saying that any U.S. assassination on Yemeni soil would be unacceptable.
“Public cooperation would also play into the hands of the militants who argue that the Yemeni government is just a puppet of the United States,” Stracke said.
Yemen’s U.S.-backed campaign against al Qaeda has prompted the militant group to lash out against state and foreign targets alike and recent messages the group posted on Islamist websites criticize Saleh’s relationship with Washington.
Back in Wadi Abida, residents say that while they do not support al Qaeda, they do not accept U.S. intervention on their soil.
“When America is in the sky, the Almighty God is above it. And when it is on the ground, we are here and it will see only war and destruction,” Eradah said.
Additional reporting and writing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Editing by Lin Noueihed