Amid drone strikes, empty stomachs and silence in Yemen

Paul Stevens/IRIN Photos/flickr
Paul Stevens/IRIN Photos/flickr

When President Obama promised to scale back U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in Yemen, they stopped for a full seven weeks – only to start again after one militant group issued a high profile threat. This week, I tried to find out why a terror threat hyped in the U.S. barely raised eyebrows in Yemen.

AMY DIPIERRO: Abdulghani al-Iryani was chatting with some farmers at an end of Ramadan celebration in Rada’a, Yemen when he found himself in a familiar corner.

Local Islamic militant group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP for short – had left this town just a hundred miles southeast of the capital a year and a half before, but farmers were still lamenting their retreat to the mountains.

ABDULGHANI AL-IRYANI: They were very happy to see AQAP come to the area, because the commander of AQAP, Tariq al-Dhahab, was a charismatic person, who immediately started dealing with longstanding local conflicts –

DIPIERRO: – things like who has access to scarce water resources or who has the rights to certain plots of land –

AL-IRYANI: One of them kept repeating that he was an angel.

DIPIERRO: Iryani had heard this kind of talk before. A political analyst currently helping the U-N investigate how drone strikes affect civilians, Iryani says peasant farmers in other provinces occupied by A-Q-A-P – the same areas targeted by U-S drone strikes – are often thankful to have the group around. He says the reason why is obvious.

IRYANI: The failure of government to respond to the needs of people made AQAP the only other option.

DIPIERRO: After Yemenis ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, they hoped a new government would establish local laws and bring basic services to the most impoverished parts of the country. But progress so far has been slow, and often AQAP has filled the power vacuum in the meantime.

And the drone strikes – headline-grabbing events here in the West – continue.

The U.S. responded to one AQAP threat this summer by renewing strikes after a nearly two month ceasefire. For most Yemenis, the terror alert was a sideshow to the more urgent hunger and thirst they face every day.

PETER SALISBURY: Tens and hundreds of thousands of children today – if not millions of children – are stunted to the extent that it affects [not only] their physical growth, but their mental growth.

DIPIERRO: Peter Salisbury is an analyst for the Yemen Forum at London-based think tank Chatham House.

SALISBURY: In the not-too-distant future, Al Qaeda will maybe be the least of people’s concerns.

DIPIERRO: Salisbury says it’s no surprise that the poorest would welcome Al Qaeda or anyone else offering them help, especially when it seems they can’t trust politicians in the far away capital.

SALISBURY: The only thing that a lot of people know of their own government – let alone a foreign government – is that it doesn’t provide electricity, it doesn’t provide water, or schooling, or other services, but it does allow another country to attack.

DIPIERRO: But Iryani says the challenges of poverty stop Yemenis not directly affected by drone strikes from organizing against them.

IRYANI: On the one hand you have people who are completely occupied with their loss to a drone, and then, just a short distance away, nobody cares.

DIPIERRO: It’s not just a question of which town is hit and which is not. Iryani says nobody mentioned drones or the U.S. during his visit to Rada’a, because a nearby explosion had killed six people just weeks before. The strike is what brought silence.

For War News Radio, I’m Amy DiPierro.

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