In al-Muslimi's estimation, "the killing of innocent civilians by U.S. missiles in Yemen is helping to destabilize my country and create an environment from which AQAP benefits." They use innocents killed by drone strikes as a recruiting tool and rely on the impression drones create that America is at war with all Yemenis. One little boy, whose father was killed in a drone strike, carries a picture of a plane in his pocket and says he wants revenge against his father's killer, "America." Drone strikes "are the face of America to many Yemenis," he reports. "If America is providing economic, social and humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the vast majority of the Yemeni people know nothing about it. Everyone in Yemen, however, knows about America and its drones."
In some places, hatred of the drone strikes is so strong that al-Muslimi feels it is dangerous to even acknowledge having visited the U.S., never mind having American friends and acquaintances.
As powerful as all his reporting is, however, what struck me most about his testimony was his description of what happened when drone strikes touched his own life. He was having dinner with a group of American friends last week when his phone started to buzz with text messages. "For almost all of the people in Wessab, I'm the only person with any connection to the United States. They called and texted me that night with questions I could not answer: Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?"
Despite all his reporting, he never imagined his own village, which doesn't even register on Google Maps, could be the site of an American drone strike. "In the past, most of Wessab's villagers knew little about the United States," he said. "My stories about my experiences in America, my American friends, and the American values that I saw for myself helped the villagers I talked to understand the America that I know and love. Now, however, when they think of America they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time. I personally don't even know if it is safe for me to go back to Wessab because I am someone who people in my village associate with America and its values." What American policymakers need to understand, he added, is that "Wessab first experienced America through the terror of a drone strike. What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America."
He is understandably conflicted.
"I hate AQAP. I don't support their ideology. I don't like the way they have distorted my religion. And I despise their methods," he said. But "I fear that these air strikes undermine the United States' effort to defeat AQAP and win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people." Look, America, at how the drone campaign has affected one of the most pro-America Yemenis that there is, a young man who lived among us, passionately hates al Qaeda and owes every opportunity he's had to America.