Drone Strikes Cannot Work without Human Intelligence

by Charlie Szrom

News that the U.S. has increased its use of Predator drones to target al-Qaeda in Yemen shows part of the administration’s response to the threat emanating from Yemen, the most recent manifestation of which was a plot to explode packages aboard planes mid-flight. The administration is right to employ more drones in Yemen, and to put more pressure on the Yemeni government for access to intelligence and to increase the number of U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism personnel on the ground.

Yet the details of reports reveal that drones have not fired missiles since May because of the lack of human intelligence on the ground:

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the drones’ surveillance prowess is often overstated and will be of limited use in identifying al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen without the aid of signal intercepts or human sources on the ground.

The lack of human intelligence (or signals intelligence, which has decreased in value as al-Qaeda-linked terrorists have largely learned to avoid using modern communication gear) shows the weakness of relying upon drone strikes as a strategy rather than as a tactic. A drone-strike campaign is only as effective as the intelligence fed into it.

In the case of Pakistan, this intelligence often comes through cooperation with Pakistani military and intelligence officials. While this has led to a high number of drone strikes in Pakistan this year and has proved a useful irritant to some groups based in North Waziristan, Pakistani officials are reluctant to provide information on the whereabouts of commanders for Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Taiba forces due to Pakistani sponsorship of such groups, limiting the impact of the drone-strike campaign.

The same holds true in Yemen. Until Yemeni security forces have the will and capability to provide actionable information on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the U.S. establishes an alternative intelligence stream, U.S. drone strikes will not do serious damage to AQAP. Yemen could be more willing to cooperate if the level of anti-al-Qaeda efforts shown by its recent offensives in Shabwah and Abyan governorates continues, although the Yemeni government has previously called for a halt in drone strikes due to backlash from the Yemeni public.

A worse situation exists in Somalia. Few partners outside a limited section of the capital of Mogadishu and Somaliland in the north can provide local intelligence on the whereabouts of the leadership of the terror group al Shabaab. Successes — such as the September 2009 killing of al-Qaeda leader Saleh Ali Nabhan in a Special Forces raid — have thus been few and far between.

Control of territory by friendly, cooperative forces can help close the human intelligence gap. When locals enjoy security provided by U.S.-allied or U.S. forces, they will more readily provide the key intelligence that guides effective missile strikes or Special Forces raids (hence the recent uptick in Special Operations in Afghanistan). Without such protection, locals will likely fear retribution and withhold information on the locations of terrorist commanders.

Without control of territory by a force willing to provide actionable information to the U.S., a drone strike campaign will not significantly reduce the threat from a terrorist group.

Charlie Szrom is a senior analyst and program manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.