The Nov. 7 drone strike that killed alleged al Qaida-linked operative Adnan al Qadhi outside Beit al Ahmar was just one of more than 50 American airstrikes believed to have taken place in Yemen so far this year.
Unlike the usual post-strike conjecture, however, this one has unleashed a flurry of speculation about why Qadhi, a well-known figure in this town, was targeted in such a violent and anonymous way.
American counterterrorism officials have painted drone strikes as a tool of last resort, utilized only when targets represent an imminent threat and are nearly impossible to take out by other means. But people in Beit al Ahmar say it’s hard to argue that Qadhi’s capture would have been out of the question. He’d already been arrested, and released, before, in 2008 after an attack on the American Embassy. And Beit al Ahmar, nine miles outside Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is no isolated enclave – it’s the birthplace of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and home to much of the military’s leadership.
Sitting less than an hour’s drive from the capital, residents here say Qadhi could have been captured easily. The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, whose drone launched the missile that killed Qadhi, declined to comment.
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“It is nearly inconceivable to imagine that he could not have been taken into custody alive,” said Abdulghani al Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “Beit al Ahmar, of course, is the hometown of much of the top leadership of the Yemeni armed forces.”
Instead, the strike has sown resentment in Beit al Ahmar, whose landscape is dominated by mammoth compounds belonging to the former president and other powerful elites. Even after many of the area’s most powerful sons broke ranks in the revolt against Saleh last year – a time marked by bloody clashes in the capital – the village had remained calm until the American drone strike, locals said.
When the dust settled, Qadhi and a companion were dead. The timing of the strike, less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama’s re-election, seemed to silence any forecasts that the U.S. administration would back off of its reliance on drone strikes in a second term. The location of the strike, the closest to the capital so far, led many to conclude that no area was off limits in the U.S. air campaign against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which American officials characterize as one of the most active branches of the terrorist network.
Few here dispute Qadhi’s open sympathy toward AQAP. After all, the target’s house, modest compared to nearby fortress-like compounds, sticks out because of a mural on one side that shows al Qaida’s signature black flag.
But his relatives and associates say there’s more nuance to Qadhi’s story. While he was labeled as a local leader of AQAP after his death, as recently as last winter he’d participated on a team that mediated between the government and AQAP-linked militants who’d seized control of the central town of Rada. The scion of a prominent local family who still held a position as an officer in the Yemeni military, Qadhi had refused to take part in the fighting, relatives said. They said he stayed home even as other AQAP militants carved out a base in the southern province of Abyan.
“He may have supported al Qaida, but he wasn’t taking part in activities,” said Abdulrazzaq Jamal, a Yemeni journalist and analyst who met with Qadhi shortly before his death. “There were connections, but there wasn’t perceptible tangible support.”
While Qadhi appeared to make little secret of his extremist ideology, his relatives said the strike against him came as a total shock. There had been no indication that he was a potential drone target, they said. Had they known he was considered such a high-value target, they claimed, they would’ve assured his cooperation with the authorities.
“We could have made sure he turned himself in,” said Himyar al Qadhi, Adnan’s brother. “If Adnan was guilty of any crime, then arrest him, put him on trial.”
Still reeling from the loss, Himyar, standing at his brother’s gravesite, was open about seeking revenge. The impact crater from the missile that killed Qadhi is little more than a dip in the road now, but local outrage still burns.
“What way is this to kill a person, in such a place?” said Qalil Lahib, owner of the land where the strike took place, pointing out civilian homes and a nearby school as he stood over the missile site. “It’s shameful, it’s a crime.”
In the center of the village, a farmer named Abduljaber Saber held forth on the strike with his neighbors, calling the attack a violation of the rule of law, casting it as an example of “American hypocrisy.”
His neighbor, Mohamed Abdulwali, took a break from repairing a water canister to chime in: “Any action has a reaction. Any violence will breed violence.”
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.