Members of the Yemeni Tays and Bin Amr tribes were returning home from a wedding ceremony on December 12. The convoy of cars was heavily armed, which isn’t surprising in a country where gun ownership is as culturally acceptable as it is in the United States.
Suddenly, an hour before sunset, an alleged U.S. drone attacked the wedding convoy in the village of Qaifa, southeast of the capital city Sanaa.
Charred bodies and burning vehicles covered the road. By the end of the night, 12 were killed with as many as 15 more severely injured and left in critical condition. Even the bride apparently suffered minor injuries.
This is hardly the first time an alleged American drone strike has gone awry.
Alleged, because the U.S. government has a policy of not commenting on specific strikes. But in light of recent attacks, the Yemeni people and international NGOs like Human Rights Watch are beseeching the Obama administration to start answering the difficult questions. The controversy has strained an already fragile relationship between the Yemeni people and their government that spans several decades.
Many forget – or were never aware in the first place – that a year-long uprising to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh gripped Yemen throughout 2011. Youths and opposition parties followed the Tunisian revolution that overthrew their long-standing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Saleh had previously been president of the Yemen Arab Republic from 1978 until 1990 when the Communist nation of South Yemen, weakened by the decline of the Soviet Union, agreed to unification with Saleh as president. In 2011, after years of alleged corruption and human rights violations, the Yemeni people took to the streets of Sanaa to demand his resignation.
A month into the protests, Saleh announced he would not seek reelection, but intended to finish his term. Despite the concession, violence against unarmed protesters continued. The 18th of March saw the deadliest day of the revolution with 52 people losing their lives and more than 200 injured at the hands of government forces who fired upon an unarmed crowd in Sanaa’s University Square.
On May 18, continued pressure forced Saleh to resign sooner than he had planned — but he backtracked just five days later. Then on June 3, a rocket-propelled grenade struck Saleh’s presidential compound, killing four bodyguards and seriously injuring Saleh. He finally announced in early October that he would step down and sign the Gulf Co-operation Council plan for transition, an idea he had previously denounced.
The agreement transferred authority to his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. He remains president today after winning a 2012 election in which he was the sole candidate, leading many Yemeni today to view his leadership as illegitimate.
“More Advanced Than The Human Brain”
A native villager of southern Yemen, the 68-year-old Hadi comes from a military background, graduating in 1964 from a military academy in the Federation of South Arabia – a former coalition of states under British protection that became South Yemen. Hadi went on to study in Britain and eventually Egypt, where he studied tanks for six years; he spent the next four years in the Soviet Union under further military tutelage. Naturally he continued his military career in South Yemen, holding various posts until he fled with South Yemeni President Ali Nasser Mohammed to Sanaa following defeat in the 1986 civil war.
During the 1994 civil war in Yemen, Hadi served as defense minister and led the military offensive against the Democratic Republic of Yemen, an internationally unrecognized nation that lasted just a few months. Following the war, Hadi was appointed vice president by Saleh.
Since securing the presidency nearly two years ago, Hadi has focused upon mending deep divides caused by the revolution, fearing Yemen could descend once again into civil war. He has also been a proponent of fighting al-Qaeda.
“We intend to confront terrorism with full force and whatever the matter we will pursue it to the very last hiding place,” Hadi said at a meeting with the British Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, according to the state news agency Saba as reported by Reuters reporter Mohammed Mukhashaf.
Not coincidentally, Hadi has also been a steadfast supporter of the Obama administration’s targeted killing program designed to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – an offshoot of the infamous terrorist network once led by Osama bin Laden.
“The drone technology is more advanced than the human brain,” he told Washington Post’s Greg Miller this past September, specifically praising the accuracy of the Obama administration’s controversial yet favorite method of combating terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen.
Whether or not the drones always hit valid targets is the question that many Yemeni activists and organizations like Human Rights Watch are clamoring the Obama administration to answer.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO that conducts research on potential human rights violations, recently released a damning 98-page report accusing the United States of violating international law in at least two targeted killings in Yemen, and withholding vital information on nearly all targeted killings, including those that kill civilians. The report accuses the U.S. of indiscriminately killing civilians in two targeted killing operations—an attack in 2009 that involved cruise missiles, rather than drones, and a strike in 2012 that was drone-assisted.
Letta Tayler, Senior Terrorism and Counterterrorism Researcher with HRW and author of the report, researched six targeted killings in Yemen between 2009 and 2013 that killed 82 people and found that at least 57 of the dead were civilians. The worst incident was unquestionably the 2009 strike by a U.S. cruise missile that dropped hundreds of cluster sub-munitions on an encampment, killing 41 civilians.
“Two thirds of the civilians killed were women and children,” estimates Tayler. “The strike also killed 14 suspected militants, but the vast majority killed were civilians.”
Calling the strike “clearly indiscriminate,” Tayler says the militants were clearly separated from civilians. “It’s not as if they were all sleeping in the same tent.”
The situation has yet to improve, and Tayler’s report suggests that the Yemeni people have turned against the United States. She warned that the backlash plays into the hands of AQAP, which uses such strikes as tools of recruitment.
“These are Yemenis who might otherwise be allies in the fight against AQAP,” she says. “Many Yemenis even told me they fear and hate the United States more than they hate and fear AQAP. When you have a local population fearing a country that professes to be the land of the free and home of the brave more than they fear one of the most notorious terrorist groups in the world, the United States has a pretty big problem on its hands.”
Testimony from the six cases HRW studied supports Tayler’s conclusion.
For example, the report highlights a cleric and policeman who were struck by drones. Images of their charred, dismembered bodies have been seen by everyone in their home village of Khashamir – a village in eastern Yemen largely outside of government control.
“Now when villagers see these images,” a relative told HRW, “they think of America.”
“Imminent Threat To Human Life”
Baraa Shiban, a 28-year-old Yemeni coordinator with the human rights advocacy organization Reprieve UK, offers similar insight from the ground floor.
Shiban’s activism began during the 2011 revolution when he helped launch an English media center to share what was happening in the country with western media. Now he’s heavily involved in researching and gathering testimony from witnesses and victims of drone strikes.
“One story that stuck in my head was an elementary school teacher who participated with us in the revolution,” says Shiban. “In early 2012, he went down the street, carrying pictures of the new president, President Hadi.”
A drone strike killed the teacher a year later.
“He had the desire for change. He had hope for a new Yemen, and yet he was killed by a drone strike.”
Shiban has lost faith in the Obama administration over his year of research and meeting with families. His experiences have led him to believe that the government does not know whom they are targeting.
“They don’t have names of who they are targeting.”
This is the sentiment among many activists, but HRW is more concerned with whether or not the person killed was a valid military target.
“If you don’t know for sure if they are, you have to presume they are civilians,” says Tayler.
However, HRW does share Shiban’s concern that two of the strikes on the part of the United States seem indiscriminate. And due to the Obama administration’s secrecy, it’s hard to say without reservation if there have been more.
Of course, if there is solid reasoning behind the attacks, the Obama administration isn’t broadcasting that thanks to its “no comment” policy on specific strikes.
“We believe it’s critical the U.S. provide basic information immediately on the strikes they have carried out, including the number of people they have killed, how many of those are civilians and who they are defining as a valid military target,” says Tayler. “These are basic questions.”
How the Obama administration defines a valid military target is a key international legal question. First of all, it’s unclear whether or not the U.S. is justified in claiming legal authority for its targeted killings on the grounds that it is engaged in a war without boundaries against al-Qaeda and largely unnamed associated forces. If hostilities between the U.S. and groups such as al-Qaeda do not rise to the level of armed conflict as defined under the laws of war, then the U.S. has far less latitude to take human life in these strikes; it can only do so to save others who face the imminent threat of death, and when no other means are feasible.
Legal frameworks aside, it’s hard to fathom how the wedding procession in the middle of Yemen on December 12 was considered to be either a valid military target or an imminent threat to American lives.
“It Was A Moment Of Joy”
Shiban traveled to meet with the families from the wedding strike just days after it happened. He says they walked him through the day of the attack, noting that it’s common for tribes to travel in a convoy of cars, moving from village to village so others can join in the celebration. It was during a long stop in the central valley when the buzz of drones suddenly filled the air, followed by a loud explosion.
“They realized that the explosion was two missiles that hit a car directly,” Shiban explains. “Only moments passed when the other two missiles hit the surrounding of the car, leading to the death of 12 people and injuring another 14.”
After the strike, the families gathered 11 of the bodies to take them to Radaa to protest what they saw as a blatant attack against innocent civilians. One body, however, was “completely shredded” and immediately buried by the father.
Despite the tragic circumstances, Shiban says the families were very welcoming and happy that someone came to listen to their story. Naturally, they never imagined they would be victims of a drone strike.
“It was a moment of joy and happiness,” Shiban was told of the wedding events prior to the strike.
According to Shiban, all of the victims had children that will now have to be raised by their grandparents or a brother. And despite claims from Yemeni officials that there was a link to a prominent local al-Qaeda leader in the convoy, Shiban insists nobody involved was militant.
“They were all members of the tribe and the tribesmen knew who these people were,” says Shiban. “They were very poor villagers, farmers just trying to make a basic means of living.”
Curiously, even though an official government statement said the strike had killed “terrorists,” the provincial governor of al-Baydah was sent to represent the government and meet with the surviving family members, paying for burial costs and medical expenses. This contradicts the government’s position that militants were involved, says Tayler, adding that assault rifles were given to residents of the area.
“The giving of guns is a tribal gesture of apology in Yemen,” Tayler said. “The government’s gestures contradict its formal statement about what happened during that wedding procession.”
A Better Strategy
Adam Baron, an American journalist who has been based in Yemen since the revolution, says Yemenis generally welcome Americans, but increasingly view the government with hostility because of the drone program.
“Most Yemenis will acknowledge that AQAP presents a problem here, but they’ll cast it as a result of larger issues, like poverty, the government’s lack of control of the country, and underdevelopment.”
Shiban concurs, saying the United States would better serve its security concerns by investing in Yemeni education.
“The price of a Hellfire missile costs $60,000 with each strike using four or five,” he says. “We’re talking about $300,000 per strike. This is more than enough to build an elementary school in Yemen,” something he believes would improve the United States’ image exponentially.
Adding to the problem is an either disinterested or unaware American public. At a time when homophobic Duck Dynasty comments rule the airwaves, most Americans don’t even realize that their own government is being accused of serious human rights violations.
Baron has his own theory about the general disinterest in Yemeni affairs: “Yemen is poor, lacks oil, and while unstable, is more stable than other countries in the region like Iraq or Syria.”
In reality, Tayler believes Americans and Yemenis have far more in common.
“The truth is that many Yemenis are simply trying to go about their lives the same as Americans,” she says. “And the more the American public recognizes that people just like them are sometimes being harmed by these strikes, the better. Because that will put increasing pressure on the Obama administration to ensure its targeted killings comply with the law.”
Until then, Yemenis will continue to turn against the Obama administration and the United States’ international reputation risks further damage. More and more Yemini citizens are beginning to feel as if they have no say and are at risk of being erroneously labeled terrorists.
To summarize the Yemeni mindset in light of these allegedly botched drone strikes, Shiban says, “You have to accept that someday one of your family members will be killed by a drone strike.”
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