The foiled bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day has raised talk of striking at al-Qaeda in Yemen, where the plot is believed to have originated. Yet the extremists operating from Yemen present the military with precious view good "aim points." In the old days, the enemy had airfields, early-warning radars, ammo depots even big defense and intelligence headquarters that could be destroyed from the air. A general could stride manfully out to the Pentagon podium, wave his pointer like a magic wand at a map where little explosion drawings had been inked, and gleefully tally up the destruction.
That was back when nations waged war against one another; today's bad guys are increasingly "non-state actors." Near the top of the list right now are Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi and former Guantanamo detainee Saeed Ali Shehri, the leaders of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is believed to have trained and outfitted alleged airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. There is also intelligence suggesting that radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cyber pen pal of Major Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 Army personnel at Fort Hood in November, may have been in contact with Abdulmutallab.
But killing three individuals is a tough assignment for the military, and the dearth of targets offered by terrorist foes frustrates military planners. Too often, they end up bombing chemical-weapons factories that turn out to be pharmaceutical plants (as in Sudan in 1998) or vainly firing missiles that do little more than rustle the flaps on terrorists' tents (in Afghanistan the same year). Such strikes run the risk of highlighting America's impotence rather than its might.
That's President Obama's dilemma as he weighs how to react to the attempted Christmas bombing. There's no doubt, U.S. intelligence officials say, that there is a resurgent core of about 200 AQAP members, aided by thousands of locals, inside Yemen. But the core tends to live among the nation's 23 million people, especially following two recent Yemeni-U.S. strikes against purported AQAP training camps that are claimed to have killed more than 60 militants. The attacks on December 17 and 24 were initially hoped to have had killed Wahishi, Shehri and al-Awlaki, but no evidence has yet demonstrated this to be the case. And there's scant chance those men will allow themselves to end up in the U.S. military's crosshairs by straying far from the human shield provided by innocent Yemenis.
In the wake of an event like the attempted bombing of Flight 253, Washington often reacts simply to calm a jittery public. That's what led to initial dubious orders to keep airline passengers in their seats for the final hour of flight. Now the Administration is assessing the wisdom of various military strikes on supposed al-Qaeda training sites inside Yemen. But there are few good options. Obama doesn't want to end up like Bill Clinton, whose futile 1998 cruise missile "retaliation" for the East Africa embassy bombings did al-Qaeda more good than harm. Given the partisan sniping already breaking out following the failed airline bombing, the last thing Obama needs right now is to be accused of launching what General Tommy Franks once derided as "pinpricks." (After the 9/11 attacks, Franks voiced his glee that he would no longer be ordered to launch "million-dollar [cruise missiles] into empty tents."
Whatever action he takes, Obama will have to pay attention to the concerns of the weak pro-U.S. Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Washington wants to continue its cooperative relationship with Saleh, and is encouraging his government to take the lead in rooting out al-Qaeda within Yemen's borders. The U.S. is helping, boosting counter-terrorism funding for Yemen from less than $5 million in 2006 to $67 million in 2009, and dispatching CIA and military personnel to train Yemeni forces. But the al-Qaeda problem has been a lesser security priority for Yemen than two unrelated separatist insurgencies in the north and south of the country.
Unlike an Afghanistan run by the Taliban, missile strikes into a country run by allies could prove politically disastrous for a nation whose citizenry seethes with anti-American sentiment. That's a big reason why there have been so few details about the two strikes earlier this month although the operation was undertaken by the Yemeni military, some missiles may have come from U.S. ships or planes in the neighborhood. Just as in Pakistan, another weak government that leans Washington's way and whose territory is infested by al-Qaeda, it is important for these governments not to be seen to be acting on Washington's orders.
In fact, Yemen itself offered one successful approach to the problem Obama now faces. Ever since a pair of al-Qaeda suicide bombers in a skiff attacked the USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor in 2000 and killed 17 U.S. sailors, Washington had been looking to punish the ringleader of the attack, Qaed Sinan Harithi. More than two years later, after learning he would be traveling across the country in an SUV, the U.S. launched a Predator drone. Once in the open countryside, safely away from any civilians, the drone fired a Hellfire missile into the vehicle, instantly dispatching Harithi and five al-Qaeda colleagues to the ultimate highway rest stop. That marked the first time the U.S. had killed a foe using an unmanned drone. It's a safe bet such aircraft are now orbiting in and around Yemeni airspace, looking to duplicate that feat.