U.S. Security Assistance to Yemen: Cessna Surveillance Aircraft

In 2012, United States security assistance to Yemen increased following a suspension of assistance prompted by Yemen’s uncertain political transition in 2011. High levels of aid to Yemen in recent years have been motivated primarily by an uptick in the activity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the strongest active al-Qaeda affiliates in the world. AQAP’s operational effectiveness is exacerbated by disarray in Yemeni security forces. The most recent delivery of security assistance to Yemen, announced on September 16, comes in the form of two Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft to be used for reconnaissance in the ongoing conflict against scattered AQAP militants. The delivery came just a week before suspected AQAP gunmen attacked a military installation in Hadraumat on Monday, September 30.

The Cessna 208 is a single engine plane designed for short-haul flights. It is a versatile aircraft, used for military and police operations in several MENA states including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. The delivery comes amid a number of criticisms of U.S. security and counterterrorism policies in Yemen. One technical critique noted in a March 2013 GAO report is that the U.S. does not have sufficient manpower in Yemen to train and assess the capabilities of Yemeni security forces, and therefore the U.S. has trouble determining the impact of their assistance. Since that report, a U.S. Air Force fact sheet was released showing efforts have been underway to train Yemeni pilots to work with the Cessna aircraft and surveillance technology since May of 2013.

A second criticism of U.S. engagement with Yemen is that it is overly focused on reacting to short-term threats, with little effort to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan that professionalizes the Yemeni military and addresses the political and economic causes of Yemen’s instability. In 2012, Yemen surpassed Pakistan as the primary target of the U.S. drone campaign, a trend that continued into this year. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi visited Washington in early August, and during a meeting with President Obama, he reportedly requested the direct transfer of drone technology. The U.S. did not complete that request, but the Cessna aircraft could help shift the United States’ focus on drone strikes to Yemeni security sector reform as a step for combatting extremism.

Concerns about security in Yemen and U.S. efforts in the country were discussed at a hearing held on September 18 by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee for Counterterrorism and Intelligence. The hearing focused on the threat posed to U.S. interests at home and abroad by AQAP, given the organization’s demonstrated capability to network with other al-Qaeda franchises as well as its work on the English-language Jihadist publication, Inspire. At the hearing, Catherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute advocated for a more comprehensive approach to counterterrorism in Yemen that focuses on providing institutional security assistance as opposed to an unending series of surgical strikes. Similarly, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress encouraged policymakers to take a new approach to the region at large and focus on aid that will “help others help themselves” and eliminate the poor economic and political conditions that encourage extremism.

Ultimately, security assistance that includes the training of Yemeni forces in line with a long-term counterterrorism strategy will be a step forward in efforts to deny and disrupt AQAP, and the delivery of products like the Cessna 208 will help the Yemeni armed forces rely less on remote operations by the U.S. However, as Brian Katulis notes, the delivery of assistance, training and equipment must be complemented by initiatives such as security sector reform and democracy development in order to improve conditions that lead to extremism.

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