The allure of a Yemeni barber shop is difficult to resist.
For only $5 to $7, the patron can enjoy a scissor cut, a surgically precise straight razor shave and delightful conversation.
I can understand how frustrated one Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) officer and one CIA officer must have been last month when their would-be kidnappers interrupted such low-cost luxury and had to be “schwacked” — the Intelligence Community (IC)'s preferred term when discussing the killing of their enemies.
It remains unclear whether these men had been targeted as American intelligence officers or as simple kidnapping victims. One thing, however, is sure — they were not part of a diplomatic mission as US State Department employees are confined to diplomatic facilities.
We also know that if someone had set out to nab an American spook, they wouldn’t be all that hard to spot.
During my time covering Yemen’s 2011 youth uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, it was more difficult to identify quality qat than to finger American spooks. Their out-of-uniform uniform, ubiquitous and often including 5-11 cargo pants, a pair of Oakley sunglasses and full beards, functioned as a caricature that could be plucked right out of the latest installment of the Call of Duty franchise.
The beards always struck me as strange. Why would a “tier 1 operator” grow out his beard in a country where the vast majority of men sported mustaches?
In addition to being a poor fashion decision (my own beard not excluded), it made them more easily identifiable.
On several occasions while utilizing coffee shop generators during lengthy blackouts I observed such “tier 1 operators” saunter into the café, nervously peer around corners and adjust a sidearm bulging out from under their shirt tail before taking a seat and ordering a cappuccino.
The cavalier bravado of the IC’s bro culture in Yemen crops up regularly amidst the daily lives of the individuals that live there.
Mini buses shuttling people to and from work must routinely make way for black SUVs with white, bearded faces peering from the windows and resting against the crane stock butts of customized M4s.
Images like these in Yemen’s urban centers dovetail perfectly into news of drone strikes blanketing the countryside and “schwacking” wedding convoys and kids along with the occasional bad guy. For many average Yemenis, it must be beginning to feel a lot like a foreign occupation.
It doesn’t help that American journalist Adam Baron was arrested and deported from Yemen earlier this week.
If a positive image of the US was ever going to be presented to Yemenis, it probably would have come from him.
The toast of qat chews across all of Arabia Felix, Adam was a beloved friend to many in intellectual, tribal, political and working class circles alike.
His nuanced reporting shed light on the plight of Yemenis often marginalized as bystanders without agency in the battle between the US and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Indeed, AQAP is not just the enemy of the US but the enemy of Yemen.
In late April, Yemen’s military launched an enormous offensive against AQAP positions in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa.
Just two days ago, the Yemeni military retook the long-held al Qaeda stronghold of Azzan, the most significant military victory against AQAP in recent memory.
Often struggling to find a decent meal, let alone their paycheck, Yemen’s grossly underpaid and poorly cared for soldiers bear the full brunt of al Qaeda’s viciousness at great benefit to their own people but to Americans as well.
A more robust counter-terrorism policy in Yemen would include more direct assistance to Yemen military on the ground, engaging AQAP militants face-to-face.
The US has dedicated a great deal of resources over the years to training Yemen’s counter-terrorism forces and it would appear that those efforts are producing results.
While intelligence officers in Sana’a are fighting in wild west-style barber shop shootouts, Yemeni foot soldiers are sending AQAP militants fleeing into the night.
Right now, those foot soldiers are running out of fuel for their vehicles used to hold the territory they recaptured just days ago. Hopefully a nationwide fuel shortage won’t negate the gains of the largest military victory against AQAP in years.
Dollar for dollar, spotting Yemeni soldiers a few bucks to get their APC gas tanks filled up is a lot more effective than paying the salary of spooks that appear to be more concerned with looking like bad asses than keeping a low profile.
If the super spies are going to emulate a video game, perhaps they should look towards Metal Gear Solid instead of Call of Duty.
In Metal Gear, the player can avoid shootouts by hiding in cardboard boxes.
They may be able to do more good in there.