Though critical of the U.S. drone campaign, none of the Islamists and Salafists I interviewed believed that drone strikes explain al Qaeda’s burgeoning numbers. “The driving issue is development,” an Islamist parliamentarian from Hadramout province said. “Some districts are so poor that joining al Qaeda represents the best of several bad options.” (Other options include criminality, migration, and even starvation.) A Salafi scholar engaged in hostage negotiations with AQAP agreed. “Those who fight do so because of the injustice in this country,” he explained. “A few in the north are driven by ideology, but in the south it is mostly about poverty and corruption.”
Despite Yemenis’ antipathy toward drones, my conversations also revealed a surprising degree of pragmatism. Those living in active conflict zones drew clear distinctions between earlier U.S. operations, such as the Majala bombing, and more recent strikes on senior al Qaeda figures. “Things were very bad in 2009,” a tribal militia commander from Abyan province told me, “but now the drones are seen as helping us.” He explained that Yemenis could “accept [drones] as long as there are no more civilian casualties.” An Islamist member of the separatist al-Harak movement offered a similar assessment. “Ordinary people have become very practical about drones,” he said. “If the United States focuses on the leaders and civilians aren’t killed, then drone strikes will hurt al Qaeda more than they help them.”
Surprisingly, Islamist politicians said much the same. “No one resents a drone strike if the target was a terrorist,” a member of the Muslim Brotherhood told me. “What we resent is the fact that outsiders are involved.” A leader from the Zaydi Shia community framed the sovereignty issue in even starker terms. “The problem is not killing people like [Anwar] al-Awlaki,” he said, referring to the Yemeni-American al Qaeda propagandist killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. “The problem is when the U.S. ambassador goes on television and takes credit for it.”"