Obama’s drone legacy in war-torn Yemen, will it continue under Trump?

A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a US drone on Dec. 13, 2013 in Sanaa. (File photo: AFP)

A recent raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki brought back haunting memories for Yemenis. Nawar was the daughter of US-born Yemeni extremist preacher, Anwar al-Awlakim, who was killed in a drone strike by the Obama administration.

During Barak Obama’s eight-year term, the United States embraced the drone program like never before. Although Obama was described by many as “passive,” it is estimated that there were 10 times more drone strikes in the fight against “terror” than there were during his predecessor, George W. bush.

In Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest countries, the use of unmanned aircraft as well as airstrikes rose dramatically under Obama, with data from UK -based Bureau of Investigative Journalism showing spikes in attacks, especially in 2012 and 2016.

There has been dispute over the exact number of deaths caused by US attacks in Yemen. However, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims that number was between 601-871, while other human rights groups report it to be much higher.

A view of a house in what security official said was destroyed by a U.S. drone in Yemen's eastern province of Hadramout September 4, 2012.  Reuters

A view of a house in what security official said was destroyed by a U.S. drone in Yemen's eastern province of Hadramout September 4, 2012. Reuters

Despite the figures, Obama’s administration insisted that drone strikes are surgical and precise only targeting terror suspects while not putting innocent men, women and children in danger.

Analyst Elisabeth Kendall, an expert on Yemen affairs at Oxford University, points out that although drone usage increased dramatically under Obama, there was also an increase in accuracy, particularly over the past year.

“Recent strikes pre-Trump were picking off genuine militants, usually traveling together in vehicles. That meant less ‘collateral damage’,” Kendall told Al Arabiya English. According to her, it was an important tactic to ensure that drone strikes do not serve as a recruiting tool and create terrorists faster than they were being killed.

“I believe that Trump will continue to use drone strikes but - if Sunday’s raid is anything to go by - then he is less concerned than Obama about ‘collateral damage’”, she added, referring to the US attack in al-Bayda that killed Awlaki’s daughter.

The assassination in 2011 of Nawar’s father, by a pilotless predator drone, was a pivotal moment in the “war against terror.” Obama directed the CIA in 2010 to carry out the attack, even though Awlaki had never been charged with or convicted of any crime. Although the attack created widespread debate, it was another drone strike carried out shortly after, that proved to be more significant.

This October 2008, file photo shows Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. (AP)

This October 2008, file photo shows Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. (AP)

Two weeks after Awlaki – who the US says was a recruiter for al-Qaeda – a separate CIA drone strike in Yemen killed his 16-year-old American-born son, Abdulrahman, along with the boy’s 17-year-old cousin besides several others.

Now almost six years later, with the recent US raid, and an on-going war in the country, questions are being asked whether President Donald Trump will continue Obama’s drone legacy in Yemen. If nothing else, this latest strike suggests a sign of things to come.

The New York Times reported that military officials had been planning the raid for months under the Obama administration. However, it was decided that the final decision would be taken by Trump.

Local witnesses said a school, a health facility and a mosque were badly damaged in the attack. They said that the Americans were “everywhere” and that people were jumping out of helicopters.

Adam Baron, cofounder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told Al Arabiya English that the raid in al-Bayda demonstrated the use of US troops on the ground in a method that was quite rare during the Obama administration.

He stated that it raises “the possibility that we could see the US expand its military engagement in Yemen under Trump’s presidency.”

Meanwhile, Kendall who is also an expert on al-Qaeda in Yemen, states that Trump may be more inclined to use actual US combat forces as he “appears keen to flex American muscles.”

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