Yemen: Drones, Death And Secrecy

Saturday 1 September 2012

There have been a flurry of drone missile strikes conducted by the United States in Yemen over the the last week. Attacks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday resulted in up to 18 fatalities, according to London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The attack on Wednesday in particular caught my eye. It was reported that a vehicle was targeted while travelling on an inner city road in Hadramawt, eastern Yemen, killing five "suspected militants," the country's military officials said.

However, Yemen's press were quick to report that among the dead were two civilians. One was a mosque caretaker and imam named Salim Ahmad Jaber, the other a police officer, Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, according to details posted online by Yemini lawyer Haykal Bafana. Bafana wrote that the car was targeted as it was driving between houses, and the caretaker and policeman were in a house that was hit. Reuters reported local residents saying that "the car was struck by one of three missiles fired from a plane ... charred bodies were pulled from it afterwards." Pictures published by Yemeni news outlet Dammon purported to depict children playing in the mangled, burnt out and blackened remains of the car, a Suzuki Vitara.

This strike stands out as an acute example of why drone attacks can be deeply problematic. In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's attack it was widely reported that a number of suspected militants had been obliterated in a new drone strike. Yet it later transpired that among the "suspected militants" there may have been two civilians. The concern is that, seemingly by default, unnamed "military sources" have a tendency to promptly announce that "suspected insurgents" or "militants" were the victims in any given strike - but how can we know for sure? We can't, as Wednesday's incident illustrates, and that's why scepticism about claims made by anonymous military sources is always necessary.

As is so often the case with drone strikes, it is almost impossible to confirm details for a number of reasons. 1) The bodies end up badly burnt and damaged, meaning identities of victims are hard to quickly establish; 2) the strikes can occur in dangerous and remote locations, in places where news outlets have a limited presence and facts are not forthcoming; and 3) the perpetrators of drone strikes in Yemen, the US CIA, conduct their actions and pick their targets behind a cloak of secrecy. (NB: Even the UK's Ministry of Defence has acknowledged there are "immense difficulty and risks" involved in verifying who has been hit in drone strikes. The MoD says it cannot tell exactly how many how many alleged insurgents it has killed using drones in Afghanistan.)

So the situation in Yemen is as follows: US forces are covertly bombing people in a country where no formal war has been declared. We do not know (with any certainty) who they are bombing or the justification for each bombing. We do not know exactly how many civilians have been killed in the process (the BFIJ estimates it could be up to 151), or how the pilots who remotely fly the drones from thousands of miles away are held accountable for their sometimes catastrophic errors. This can also be said in other countries that are being subjected the America's covert drone attacks, such as Pakistan and Somalia.

Drone attacks of this kind self-evidently raise profound legal, moral and ethical questions. Unfortunately, the US government presently appears to have very little interest in addressing them.


Incidentally, I put up a short post here the other day about the psychological impact drone strikes conducted by the United States are apparently having on residents of Manzer Khel, a tribal village in North Waziristan, Pakistan. The same can be said of certain communities within Yemen. As a sheikh from Bayhan district in Shabwaare told the Economist in a piece out today: "People are afraid to go to weddings because, whenever large groups of men gather, they are afraid a drone will hit them." And Yemeni news outlet Dammon reported that prior to Wednesday's attack targeting the car in Hadramawt, US drones were spotted, instilling "panic among the citizens of the region."

There could well be blowback. While the strikes are intended to take out terror suspects, by spreading fear among villages and in some cases killing civilians, they may only be serving to recruit greater numbers of terrorists to fight and plot against America and its allies. As the Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana wrote on Twitter back in May: "Dear Obama, when a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda."

UPDATE 4.09.12: CNN is reporting that a fresh suspected US drone strike in Yemen has killed 13 civilians, including three women. A senior Yemeni Defense Ministry official is quoted as saying the target was "completely missed. It was a mistake". CNN says that families of the victims closed main roads and vowed to retaliate. Nasr Abdullah, an activist from the district where the attack took place, in the al-Baitha province, told CNN: "I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake."

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