America’s Newest Secret War, Or The Same One We’ve Been Fighting For Ten Years?

American drone strikes in Yemen are intensifying. Is this a new war. or just the same one we've been fighting since October 2001?

Drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen isn’t a new thing, but the United States has recently increased the intensity of that campaign at the same time that Yemen itself is falling into political chaos:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen, exploiting a growing power vacuum in the country to strike at militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, according to American officials.

The acceleration of the American campaign in recent weeks comes amid a violent conflict in Yemen that has left the government in Sana, a United States ally, struggling to cling to power. Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to Al Qaeda in the south have been pulled back to the capital, and American officials see the strikes as one of the few options to keep the militants from consolidating power.

On Friday, American jets killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen. According to witnesses, four civilians were also killed in the airstrike. Weeks earlier, drone aircraft fired missiles aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who the United States government has tried to kill for more than a year. Mr. Awlaki survived.

The recent operations come after a nearly year-long pause in American airstrikes, which were halted amid concerns that poor intelligence had led to bungled missions and civilian deaths that were undercutting the goals of the secret campaign.

Officials in Washington said that the American and Saudi spy services had been receiving more information — from electronic eavesdropping and informants — about the possible locations of militants. But, they added, the outbreak of the wider conflict in Yemen created a new risk: that one faction might feed information to the Americans that could trigger air strikes against a rival group.

A senior Pentagon official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that using force against militants in Yemen was further complicated by the fact that Qaeda operatives have mingled with other rebels and antigovernment militants, making it harder for the United States to attack without the appearance of picking sides.

The American campaign in Yemen is led by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, and is closely coordinated with the Central Intelligence Agency. Teams of American military and intelligence operatives have a command post in Sana, the Yemeni capital, to track intelligence about militants in Yemen and plot future strikes.

Concerned that support for the campaign could wane if the government of Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, were to fall, the United States ambassador in Yemen has met recently with leaders of the opposition, partly to make the case for continuing American operations. Officials in Washington said that opposition leaders have told the ambassador, Gerald M. Feierstein, that operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula should continue regardless of who wins the power struggle in Sana.

The extent of America’s war in Yemen has been among the Obama administration’s most closely guarded secrets, as officials worried that news of unilateral American operations could undermine Mr. Saleh’s tenuous grip on power. Mr. Saleh authorized American missions in Yemen in 2009, but placed limits on their scope and has said publicly that all military operations had been conducted by his own troops.

Several bloggers, including Polipundit and Jeff Dunetz, have expressed doubt about the legality of these actions and questioned whether the Obama Administration should be required to seek Congressional approval before taking these actions in Yemen. While I am loath to endorse yet another war in the Middle East, and I’m not sure that we’re engaging in the right strategy at this point given conditions on the ground, it seems fairly clear to me that the President has the legal authority to authorize these drone strikes against terrorist targets.

First of all, in October 2001 the House passed by a vote of 420-1, and the Senate passed by a vote of 98–0, the Authorization For Use Of Military Force Against Terrorists, which states:

a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements-

(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supercedes [sic] any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

The al Qaeda offset based in Yemen is closely affiliated with the group originally formed by Osama bin Laden, for that reason alone I think the AUMF clearly provides sufficient legal authorization for these strikes.

Additionally, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group is known, is believe to have played a role in the USS Cole bombing, the 2009 Christmas bombings, and the 2010 cargo bomb plot. Their apparent leader Anwar al-Awaki is known to have links to such persons as the Times Square Bomber and Major Nidal Hassan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings. Most controversially, he is known to be on a targeted killing list as a person who is a threat to the United States. To the extent AQIAP is a threat against the United States, I would think it’s fairly clear that the President’s authority as Commander in Chief authorizes him to take action against them, especially given the existence of the open-ended AUMF passed in October 2001.

Legally then, I don’t think there’ much question that the operation in Yemen is authorized. There are several valid points that can be made about the dangers of the type of open-ended AUMF that Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but the time to have that discussion was when the resolution was being debated, not ten years later after the President has acted under its authority while Congress has essentially ceded its role completely and not even conducted the most cursory of reviews. When Congress passed that authorization, they signed us up for a “War On Terror” with no logical end point.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. ponce says:

    I don’t think many people would question Obama’s right to fight in Yemen.

    But, isn’t it time the Pentagon proved it could actually improve America’s security by randomly spreading death in a third world shit hole before we cut those cowboy’s loose (again)?

  2. michael reynolds says:

    If we had a congress capable of discussing serious issues we should at some point begin a conversation on what is rapidly evolving into a sort of magical, push-button ability to kill anyone, anywhere on earth. Predator/Hellfire technology is not going to be the final stage, we’ll see an ever-increasing ability to strike or assassinate around the world.

    This is different not just in degree but in kind from past warfare. We’ve always had to risk our men to get theirs. We’ve had to load them on ships or planes and send them “off” to war. But that is less and less the case. The men and woman flying Predators out of Langley are not putting their own lives at risk. They aren’t even missing their kids’ soccer game.

    This power must be very seductive to any chief executive, and wise heads in the legislative branch should be looking at it.

  3. ponce says:

    According to a new Pew pol,l 65% of Americans (and 72% of Independents) favor reducing America’s overseas military commitments:

    Obama’s missing an opportunity by catering to the perpetual war freaks.

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s a target rich environment that at present dovetails with what America has been doing for the past 10 years in prosecuting the War on Terror.

    Although we’ve been shooting Hellfire missiles up Jihadi asses in Yemen since late 2001 Yemen did not become a true focal point for Jihadi shelter until after al Qaeda & Co. were eviscerated in Iraq. Now there are a lot more of these (sub)human targets over in Yemen, which means the CIA simply is readjusting its sights.

    This merely is a function of the asymmetrical warfare in which we’re engaged. Al Qaeda scum are not going to meet us on the battlefield like a proper army and then surrender in a proper ceremony after we kick their asses. They’re going to scatter and run and hide, like the cockroaches they are. To deal with that reality the CIA has been letting them build up nests, finding those nests and then dropping the proverbial sledgehammer on them and killing as many of them as practicable. Which always is the best result for everyone concerned. The world losses more Jihadi scum. The U.S. losses a potential Mohammed Atta. The Jihadi get their tickets stamped for paradise. Win-win, Chief.

  5. Wayne says:

    I don’t have a problem with it as long as they are legit terrorist group target. However if they are mainly just citizens who are acting up against their government and we are using our military assets to help suppress them, then it becomes much more complicated.

    A legit concern which many liberals had back in the Bush days, was with such a generic term as terrorist group, a President could justify attacking about any group or many different countries. Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution since the terrorist problem does need to be address. One can only hope the President and Congress are careful that that power isn’t abused.

  6. Wayne says:

    Reducing overseas commitments is a general term. One that I’m for by the way. The problem is when you get down to the specifics. Some reductions I would be for, others I would not.

  7. TG Chicago says:

    I guess I’m old fashioned. I think that before assassinating an American citizen, there should be some form of due process. How does the AUMF override basic protections that American citizens enjoy?

  8. TG Chicago says:


    [AQP’s] apparent leader Anwar al-Awaki…

    Per Greenwald:

    Dear Reuters: Anwar Awlaki is *not* the “the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” #IgnorantPropagandists

  9. Libya illegal? Yes.

    Yemen illegal? No. The AUMF you cite does cover it.

  10. Wayne says:

    Most of the basic protections that American citizens enjoy only apply when they are in U.S. territory. There are a few exceptions for overseas but mostly pertaining to agents of the U.S. conduct. Also a few for specific laws for U.S. citizens’ conduct but most of those have never been tested in court of law and many think they are on shaky grounds.

    Of course just because there may be no legal jurisdiction in a particular act, doesn’t mean that there is no basic right or wrong in someone’s action.

  11. Tim says:

    I think it is obviously illegal for the president to use military force without obtaining consent from Congress… while I might not be a lawyer, I know that the Constitution cannot be changed without an involved amendment process. So, any law passed by Congress abdicating power to the Executive branch is unconstitutional and invalid. Not that anyone cares about that old scrap anyway.