Dawn is just breaking on June 5th at Djibouti’s international airport, but it’s already boiling hot on the tarmac. Mohammed Issa, a rotund and mustachioed border-police officer, gestures to a massive U.S. Air Force transport jet — a gray C-17 Globemaster — sitting a short distance away. “Since the start of the war in Yemen, it’s been crazy here,” he says. “Military flights, humanitarian aid — sometimes there’s no space to park on the tarmac.”
Djibouti is a tiny state of citrus-colored shacks and goat-lined boulevards tucked into a barren, volcanic stretch of the Horn of Africa. It sits astride the narrow straits that lead to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and is home to the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, linchpin of one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial programs: the drone-based campaign of surveillance and assassination against Al Qaeda and its allies in Somalia and Yemen.
Yemen, an impoverished, restive nation of 27 million on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula has, in particular, been the focus of extensive counterterrorism efforts since the deadly attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Its branch of Al Qaeda has hatched some of the most dangerous plots against the United States, including the so-called Underwear Bomber, who tried to take down a commercial jet over Detroit with explosives in his boxer shorts. The Obama administration assassinated its first U.S. citizen, the fiery propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen’s arid badlands. American special-operations forces have spent years training Yemeni counterterrorism units. In his speech unveiling his plan to combat ISIS last September, Obama held up Yemen as an example of where the U.S. had “successfully pursued” his counterterrorism strategy.
That strategy has now completely unraveled, as Yemen has become the latest country in the Middle East to descend into a full-fledged civil war. In March, after Houthi rebels seized control of the government, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which accuses the Houthis of being supported by its archrival Iran, launched a U.S.-supported campaign of airstrikes and imposed a land, air and sea blockade of the country — which it says is necessary to keep out Iranian weapons.
Four months of bitter fighting later, the Houthis control even more territory. And the conflict has pushed this already impoverished country to the brink of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with the aid community warning of an impending famine if the blockade is not lifted. More than 3,700 Yemenis have died, nearly half of them civilians, and more than 1.25 million have been displaced from their homes.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to seize wide swaths of eastern Yemen, including the port city of Mukalla, and has called for new attacks against the U.S. ISIS has gained a foothold and launched car-bomb attacks in the capital. Forced to evacuate its embassy and 125 special-operations advisers, the U.S. found its counterterrorism strategy in shambles, with many of the weapons and equipment it supplied to Yemen reported to be in the hands of militias.