Are we supposed to feel bad about two misguided headbangers who followed the call of jihad and met their virgins in Yemen when they got into the way of an American drone? What’s there to debate? They wanted to be ‘martyrs’, they got everything they were looking for.
But what should concern us is the great number of foreign fighters who went to Syria to murder Christians and Alawites, and to turn Syria into an Islamic state:
Australians’ deaths in Yemen anti-terror strike ‘a warning’ to Federal Government
To the ancient Romans, Yemen was Arabia Felix, translating literally as Happy Arabia, but this was wishful thinking on the part of an empire with designs on the rugged, unconquerable land on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. A Roman expedition soon ended in complete defeat at the hands of fierce local tribesmen.
Today, Yemen finds itself firmly in the drone crosshairs of the great power of the modern age, Pax Americana.
The deserts and mountains are a clandestine battlefield in Washington’s highly controversial drone campaign in the declared “Global War On Terrorism”– and for the first time, Australians are among the latest casualties.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) will only confirmÂ two Australian men were killedÂ late last year in an anti-terrorism operation in Yemen. One was a dual New Zealand national, who according to NZ Prime Minister John Key, had attended a terrorist training camp.
The Australian newspaper reported that “the two men, believed to be in their twenties, were killed by a Predator drone strike on five Al Qaeda militants travelling in a convoy of cars in Hadramawt, eastern Yemen on November 19”.
The newspaper identified them as Christopher Harvard of Townsville and a New Zealand dual citizen who went by the name of “Muslim bin John”.
Greg Barton, international director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, says it is highly likely the men were members of the terrorist group Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that should be interpreted as a red flag to the Australian Government.
“One of the key things about AQAP is that it has always had ambitions and considerable capacity to project its attacks beyond the Arabian Peninsula, so despite its name, it is very much trying to step into the role that the Al Qaeda core played previously,” Professor Barton said.
AQAP has launched suicide bombings in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The fact that Australians are engaged with AQAP is a worry, not least because it means they are likely to be very sophisticated and may be involved in plots that might come back to Australia.Greg Barton
An AQAP member failed in his attempt to set off explosives sewn to his underwear, while on a flight landing in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. In 2010, explosives planted by AQAP were found aboard two US-bound cargo planes.
“The fact that Australians are engaged with AQAP is a worry, not least because it means they are likely to be very sophisticated and may be involved in plots that might come back to Australia,” Professor Barton said.
“One of the interesting bits of news to come out of this drone strike is that these two Australians had not been known to authorities prior to going into Yemen.
“It’s not clear what numbers we are talking about with Australians in Yemen. It’s obviously much smaller than the situation in Syria where there’s probably a couple of hundred Australians.”
Ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden
The Hadramawt region is a starkly beautiful desert landscape noted for the stunning multi-storey city of Hadramawt Wadi. Its soaring mud towers have been dubbed the ancient Manhattan of Arabia.
The region is equally well known as the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s father lived there, before moving his family to Saudi Arabia about 80 years ago.
A decade ago, I was on assignment in the area, not long after the US had launched its covert war in Yemen.
The Americans had just made the first targeted drone strike outside of Afghanistan. Hellfire missiles launched from a Predator had obliterated a four-wheel drive racing across the desert.
The six occupants were killed instantly. Among them was Abu Al Harithi, mastermind of the 2000 suicide bombing in Aden harbour of the destroyer USS Cole, an attack that killed 17 sailors.
Following the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, there were fears Osama bin Laden would transform Yemen into his new base.
Al Qaeda’s ranks were full of Yemenis and large sections of the country were outside the effective control of the government, ruled by heavily armed tribes sympathetic to Islamic extremists.
Bin Laden is now dead, but his legacy endures.
AQAP morphed out of the remnants of the original Al Qaeda, the re-organisation in part shielded by the chaos of sectarian and tribal upheaval that continues to convulse Yemen.
In 2011, as AQAP grew in strength, the US renewed its drone war on the peninsula. On September 30, 2011, US drones operating out of a CIA base in neighbouring Saudi Arabia killed a key AQAP leader – American-born Anwar al-Awlaki.
Among three other people killed in the drone missile attack was another US-born militant.
While President Barack Obama hailed the attack as “another significant milestone” in the campaign to defeat AQAP, the deliberate targeting of American citizens in drone strikes prompted a fierce domestic debate in the US on the legality of this type of remote warfare.
The Hadramawt connection
The Hadramawt region has a strong tradition of attracting foreigners to local religious schools. Some have been westerners.
I met several young Australians, Britons and an American who were there to learn Arabic and embrace their faith amid the harsh ascetic landscape. However, the majority – several hundred students – were drawn from South East Asian families with ancestral links to the region.
Professor Barton says this practice continues today.
“There’s a long tradition of people going off to religious studies in Yemen. A lot of Malaysians, a lot of Indonesians go off to study in Yemen, not with any intention to join, or connection with radical groups,” he said.
“It’s an interesting region in the broader Australasian context. There is a large network of Hadhramis from Hadramawt across South East Asia. Some of them are very much involved in progressive Islamic social movements, some of them are very much involved in reactionary movements.”
He says the South East Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and numerous other terrorist attacks, has strong links to Hadramawt.
“Famously Abdullah SungkarÂ (the founder) of JI, now deceased, and Abu Bakar Bashir (current JI spiritual leader) who is still very much with us, are both of Hadhrami background. And many of the networks they were plugging into had a Hadhrami element,” he said.
“So Hadramawt for whatever reason, seems to be linked with global terrorism or at least global extremist networks and that means it’s linked into networks that bring people in to study at schools.
“And because AQAP has this ambition of reaching out and attacking the west, converts are very valuable because they are capable of mounting operations with less chance of being detected.
“And because they are developing these very small effective IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), it is safe to assume they are hoping to, at some stage, use them more on the person of someone who doesn’t immediately trigger any security concerns.”
Strike will open debate in Australia about US policy: Shanahan
Security policy analyst Rodger Shanahan predicts the killing of the two Australian nationals, reportedly in a drone strike,Â may trigger a local debate on this controversial form of warfare.
Writing for the Lowy Institute for International Policy, he says:
“This will open a debate in Australia about US policy, a debate that hasÂ been going on for quite some time elsewhere. Drone strikes have killedÂ British,Â German, and other nationals in the past so it’s not an entirely new issue for Western countries.
“Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be ‘extrajudicial killings’ and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war.
“Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes.
“The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship.”
Mr Shanahan believes that ultimately neither politicians nor the public will express much sympathy for those killed while working for a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation.
“Regardless of the debate about the legality or policy sense of US drone strikes, if it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of AQAP and were not deliberately targeted, then I don’t think either the Australian Government or public will lose much sleep over their passing,” he said.