No, drone strikes aren't "creating terrorists"

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. These subjects came from 14 of Yemen’s 21 provinces, most from rural regions. Many faced insurgent infiltration in their own districts. Some of them were actively fighting AQAP. Two had recently visited terrorist strongholds in Jaar and Zinjibar as guests. I conducted each of these in-depth interviews using structured questions and a skilled interpreter. I have withheld my subjects’ names to protect their safety — a necessity occasioned by the fact that some of them had survived assassination attempts and that others had recently received death threats.

These men had little in common with the Yemeni youth activists who capture headlines and inspire international acclaim. As a group, they were older, more conservative, and more skeptical of U.S. motives. They were less urban, less wealthy, and substantially less secular. 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…

Religious figures echoed these words. Though critical of the U.S. drone campaign, none of the Islamists and Salafists I interviewed believed that drone strikes explain al Qaeda’s burgeoning numbers. “The driving issue is development,” an Islamist parliamentarian from Hadramout province said. “Some districts are so poor that joining al Qaeda represents the best of several bad options.” (Other options include criminality, migration, and even starvation.) A Salafi scholar engaged in hostage negotiations with AQAP agreed. “Those who fight do so because of the injustice in this country,” he explained. “A few in the north are driven by ideology, but in the south it is mostly about poverty and corruption.”