Sanaa- One hour separated Abdullah Mabkhout al-Ameri, 65, from being with his second bride. A US drone attack on the wedding procession on December 12, 2013 turned the celebration into a funeral.
Around 70 people from the Al-Teessi and Al-Ameri tribes, which hail from Yaklaa in Al-Baydaa province (268 kilometers southeast of Sanaa), were in the 14-car convoy. Twelve people, including the groom’s 25-year-old son, Saleh, were killed and 13 others, including the bride and groom, were injured in the hand and cheek, respectively.
One survivor from the convoy, 15-year-old Rajeh Ali Masaad, said: “We heard the sound of the plane and saw a flash aiming at our car. I, the driver Salem Ali Abdullah al-Ameri, and a third person ran out of the car. A few meters away, a missile blew up the Toyota car in front of us and its shrapnel flew around. Three more explosions followed.”
Fahd Salem Ali al-Teessi, 35, was driving his Land Cruiser when the missile shrapnel broke through his rear window. The survivor ecalled: “Four people in my car were killed and three others injured”.
The area’s tribal leader Abdullah Bin Mohammad al-Teessi, 55, was injured and his 35-year-old son Ali was killed. He said that “several people were killed or injured inside the cars and others were killed and injured after they ran out. Some survived by chance.”
This investigation documents US drone attacks killing dozens of civilians since 2002 under a covert counter-terrorism bilateral agreement.
The Yemeni and US authorities have been indifferent to civilian casualties to the point of not even offering an apology. These attacks and official indifference has increased sympathy for Al-Qaeda, attracting new followers, according to the observations of these reporters, legislators, and experts in jihadist movements.
Yemeni MP Ahmad Sha’i, rapporteur for the parliamentary committee on defense and security, says that the drone strikes “increase Yemenis’ anger at the state as they violate Yemen’s sovereignty while the state refused to compensate citizens affected by these attacks, let alone apologize to them”. Moreover, these strikes push most of the victims into Al-Qaeda’s ranks, to avenge the killing of women and children in a tribal community.
Dozens of angry youth are believed to have joined Al-Qaeda, which is outlawed in Yemen, and their number is growing in a stark contrast to the supposed objective of these attacks. Most of the drone strikes cause “collateral damage” in civilian installations and exclusively kill civilians — including women and children — without links to Al-Qaeda.
MP Shawqi al-Qadi, member of the parliamentary committee on rights and freedoms, says that “the injured innocent and their relatives turn to violent groups targeting American and Yemeni interests.”
Sa’eed Obeid al-Jamhi, a researcher specialized in terrorist organizations, agrees. “With every American raid, Al-Qaeda’s luck improves in gaining popular sympathy and support and in increasing popular hostility toward the Yemeni and US governments. Killing one civilian along with 10 terrorists is reason for the relatives of civilian victims to join Qaeda, especially when no one apologizes to or compensates them.”
Al-Jamhi explains that”the tribal social and religious structure in Yemen pushes the victims’ families into an alliance with those who extend a helping hand to take revenge from the killer, whom they view to be represented in the Yemeni and US governments.”
The assassination of Maareb deputy governor Jaber al-Shabwani on May 24, 2010 by mistake in a US drone strike angered Al-Shabwan tribesmen and pushed some of its members to join Al-Qaeda, including Mabkhout Ali Jaber al-Shabwani.
US admission and legal justification
Although survivors and families of the victims of the wedding procession insist that no Al-Qaeda gunmen was part of the wedding convoy, US and Yemeni officials told the Associated Press at the time that the air strike targeted Shawqi Ali al-Baadani, who was accused of a plot that prompted Washington to shut down its embassies in 19 countries in the summer of 2013. They said that Al-Baadani was injured and survived the attack, but admitted that 12 others in a wedding convoy were killed.
The reporters of this investigation visited the area on December 18 and 19, 2013 and saw a wrecked car at the site of the attack and remains of a missile with the following printed on it: “WARNING: 2-MAN LIFT.” Local residents said that panic and fear swept the area because the plane continued to fly at low altitude for two more hours, which prevented helping out the wounded, including some who bled to death.
Human Rights Watch called on the United States to investigate this strike, publish the findings, and compensate the families of the victims if a mistake was committed. Its report, released on February 20, 2014, cited “cause for serious concern over the US forces’ adherence to President Obama’s policy on targeted killings.”
Social and psychological effects
Britain’s Reprieve Organization, which assists prisoners and families of war victims, dispatched mental health expert Dr. Peter Schaapveld to Yemen in March 2013 on a research trip to meet the families and children of drone attack victims.
Schaapveld told these reporters on June 7, 2013, that the results of his research “found that 71% of relatives of drone victims’ suffer trauma disorders while 99% showed severe psychological disorders as a direct cause of drone air strikes.”
He adds: “These findings and the catastrophic impact of these strikes on children are most concerning… This brutal ripping apart of entire communities is unacceptable and should not be acceptable or tolerated by the international community.”
Raids and victims
Obtaining accurate statistics on US attacks and their victims is difficult because both Yemen and the United States deem them intelligence secrets. But the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, HOOD, recorded 81 air strikes in its 2012 annual report. The report, however, did not mention victims. The Investigative Journalism Bureau in London documented between 134 and 241 US strikes in Yemen from 2002 to August 2013 that killed 1,150 people.
Former US Congressman Dennis Kucinich told the House of Representatives on November 16, 2012, that American air strikes in Yemen since 2002 killed 1,952 people. Ali al-Ahmadi, head of Yemen’s National Security Agency, said in a press conference in early January 2013 that “100 Al-Qaeda armed elements were killed in air strikes during 2012.”
After visiting several areas hit by US attacks and comparing the information collected from government and media reports, these reporters confirmed 101 air strikes between 2011 and August 2014, which killed approximately 609 people and injured dozens, including civilians.
The following table shows the number of US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda gunmen in Yemen and number of killed and injured from 2011 to August 2014:
Entire families lost
One of the bloodiest US air strike in Yemen occurred on December 17, 2009 targeting Al-Maajala in Abyan province (427 kilometers south of Sanaa), killing 55 people including 21 children and 14 women — seven of whom were pregnant — according to a parliamentary committee formed to investigate the attack. Fourteen more people were killed, but the committee could not verify from the Yemeni authorities if they belonged to Al-Qaeda.
In a statement released on June 7, 2010, Amnesty International said that this air strike was carried out by a “BGM-109D Tomahawk Cruise missile with cluster bombs,” adding that the explosive clusters “remained scattered around the village and the government has made no effort to clear them.”
Residents said that other people, including women and children, were later killed by these unexploded bombs. Among those killed in this attack is Salem Atef Ali, 55, according to his widow, Noor Salem Sa’eed Lazhaf, 30, who was also injured along with her children: Warda, 13, Khaled, 10, and Ali, 9.
Only two little girls survived the Al-Maajala attack, including 2-year-old Sumaya, who was slightly injured, and her relative Nada, 3. They are the daughter and granddaughter of Muqbil Salem Luqiya al-Anbouri, 65, who went out searching for his lost camel on the afternoon of December 16. Upon his return the next day, he found that his entire family of 31 members — wife, children, and grandchildren — were killed.
Al-Anbouri said: “I heard the explosion and saw smoke rising high above the mountain near our village. When I arrived two hours later, I did not see any sign of our house. I and other people picked up the scattered remains of my children and grandchildren.”
The two surviving children are currently living with a relative in a house made of mud and wood only a few kilometers from the site of the attack. Upon visiting them in early February 2013, they appeared overwhelmed by fear three years after the tragedy. With great difficulty and upon their relatives’ encouragement, they told these reporters: “America killed our family.”
Ahmad al-Zarqa, a journalist specialized in Al-Qaeda and militant groups, said that Al-Maajala attacks “did not eliminate Al-Qaeda elements; on the contrary, they killed innocent victims, mostly women and children, raised popular suspicion at American ability to determine its targets, and produced widespread anger and desire among the area’s people and victims’ relatives to seek revenge from those who carried out this brutal act. A growing number joined the ranks of hundreds of fighters from different countries and became part of the enabling environment for the fighters, who set up training camps in the area, prompting the Yemeni authorities to carry out two campaigns; the first in October 2012 and second in April 2014, which the government authorities said succeeded in destroying these camps.”
On September 3, 2012, a US drone bombed a civilian truck carrying 16 passengers on its way to Al-Sabool village near Raddaa in Al-Baydaa province, killing 11 people, including women and children, and injuring three others.
Nasser Mabkhout al-Sabooli, the 46-year-old truck driver, escaped death with severe burns on his face and other parts of his body. He complained that the “government did not fulfill its obligations towards the victims.”
In a telephone interview upon his return from medical treatment in Cairo, Al-Sabooli said: “After repeated legal appeals, the authorities finally caved in and sent me and the two others — Mohammad Jarallah al-Sabooli and Sultan Sarhan — to Egypt for treatment. The Defense Ministry granted each one $5,000, but Mohammad Jarallah al-Sobooli died there and I returned with Sarhan, 22, before completing treatment because the money ran out.”
No breadwinner and no care
In the area of Jahana (40 kilometers east of Sanaa), Salim Hussein Jamil, 30, was driving his Toyota truck with his friend and school teacher Ali Saleh al-Qaweli on January 23, 2013. He did not realize that stopping to pick up six unidentified people on the road would make him, his friend, and vehicle a target for a US drone strike that killed them all.
According to a security report on the attack, four were suspected Al-Qaeda elements, including one identified as Rabie Hmoud Laheb, a member of the local council in the district of Sanhan east of Sanaa. His family said that the Yemeni authorities made no effort to arrest him.
After he was killed, these reporters visited Salim’s small family home in the village of Qawel, which told a tragic story. With his death, the man’s large family lost its only breadwinner, especially as Salim’s father was bedridden with a broken rib.
Salim’s mother, 50, said that her children’s grandmother is partially paralyzed and requires constant medication. “Their grandfather suffers from Alzheimer’s and has been in a wheelchair for 15 years,” she said, adding that her deceased son “has three sisters and three brothers, the oldest being 14, who had to drop out of school to make a living and support his family.” She said with tears rolling down her cheeks: “We have no one now.”
Mohammad, the brother of the school teacher killed in the same attack, wondered: “Does having people linked to Al-Qaeda in the same car justify the attack and killing innocent people?”
On April 19, 2014, an American plane targeted two vehicles in Al-Sawma’a in Al-Baydaa province, killing and injuring 15 people which the Yemeni authorities said were Al-Qaeda elements. But they later rushed to admit that 10 civilians, specifically constructions workers on their way to work, were among the victims.
American air strikes also targeted the city of Azan in Shabwa province (550 kilometers southeast of Sanaa) on March 30, 2012, killing three people, including two Al-Qaeda suspects and a civilian named Saleh al-Sena, 60. Six children with him were injured. Al-Sena’s brother Abdullah, 44, said that “the American plane bombed a car near my brother as he was leaving the mosque. Shrapnel hit him in the spine and he died later in the hospital.”
On August 29, 2012, another plane targeted a vehicle in Al-Qutn in Hadramawt province (790 kilometers east of Sanaa) killing five people, including two civilians — Salem Ahmad Bin Salem Jaber, a 50-year-old father of seven, and traffic policeman Walid Bin Abdullah Jaber, 26, and father of one.
A relative of the two victims, Dr. Abdullah Jaber, 40, said that the targeted suspects “could have been arrested and prosecuted without terrorizing the people.” On the effects of this air strike, he added: “We rushed several children to hospital due to panic and the nervous and psychological breakdowns they suffered.”
This attack angered the people of Hadramawt province, which was the scene of 17 drone strikes until April 2014, according to a report released by Haq for Human Rights in that month. Abdul Razzaq al-Jamal, a journalist specialized in Al-Qaeda affairs, said this became a reason to create a fostering environment for Al-Qaeda elements, prompting the government authorities to launch consecutive military campaigns in different areas of the province to prevent the organization from taking control of the area..
Lawyer Abdul Rahman Burman, head of the complaints department at HOOD, described the American air strikes as a “genocide war crime, for which the Yemeni and American governments are fully responsible.” Burman stressed that the victims’ families have the right “to take local or international legal action because the operations target citizens not facing prosecution in the courts.”
He stressed that “Yemen’s laws do not permit extrajudicial killings… The Yemeni government’s permission for US planes to enter Yemeni territories contravenes Article 48 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the state shall guarantee citizens’ personal freedoms and preserve their dignity and security.”
International lawyer Rasheed Massli from the Geneva-based Alkarama rights organization said that official US justification for its covert program of targeted killings mixes between invoking the law of war and carrying out operations enforcing the law. “It is necessary to distinguish between the two,” he said. “In the first, the law of armed conflict must be implemented; in the second, the rules of enforcing the law must be adhered to and within the context of international human rights laws.”
He continued to say: “The US forces use drones, military jets, or war ships to carry out targeted killings described as extrajudicial.”
Yemen as an accused accomplice
The Yemeni government refuses to comment on civilian casualties and the survivors’ consequent membership in the ranks of Al-Qaeda. Foreign Minister Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qarbi said that the “air raids are carried out with the approval of the Yemeni authorities because Yemen is an important partner in the war against terrorism.”
He added that the Yemeni “National Security Agency is responsible for this file, including compensating the victims’ families.” But agency officials have refused to comment on the issue.
Yemen signed a counter-terrorism agreement in 2002, allowing US intelligence operations to launch their first drone strike on November 3, 2002 — two years after the attack on the US Navy vessel Cole off the Coast of Aden. That air strike killed former Al-Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harethi and five aides in the province of Maareb.
According to a Yemeni military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “there are two joint Yemeni-US control and command rooms in Sanaa, which obtain information collected by American spy planes and deliver live transmission of the air strikes.” The source added that “the first room is inside the US embassy and the second is in a high-security secret house in the capital, Sanaa.”
The source refused to reveal the location because of the secret nature of military operations.
But the source continued to say: “The Yemeni team supervising the raids comprises the heads of counter-terrorism units in the security and military agencies and officials from the national and political security agencies, the army chiefs of staff, and defense and interior ministries under the supervision of the Yemeni president. They work with a team of CIA experts who receive their orders directly from the US president.”
The catastrophic mistakes committed by the drones prompted the Yemeni parliament on December 15, 2013, to endorse a ban on their flight over Yemeni airspace and called on the army and security institutions to assume their responsibility in pursuing and arresting terrorists and compensating victims. But the first eight months of 2014 saw a number of US air strikes, making parliament’s decision nothing more than ink on paper.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, ARIJ: www.arij.net