New Report Documents the Human Cost of U.S. Drone Strikes in Yemen

Human rights activists interview witnesses to the strikes' civilian casualties

Yemen
Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images
A Yemeni man walks past a damaged traditional house in the historical quarter of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
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There are more than 80 names at the end of a human rights report published online this week. Each one is said to belong to a civilian killed or maimed as a result of U.S. missile strikes in Yemen since 2009. They were mothers, fathers, children and grandparents – and they stand in contrast to claims that the United States does not launch missiles into Yemen unless there is a "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured," as President Obama told the nation in May.

The names are preceded by 25 pages of detailed descriptions of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen and their consequences, offering a rare level of information on specific attacks and their physical, psychological and financial impacts on individual Yemeni civilians.

"For me, its power is in the totality," says Gregory D. Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of the book The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia. "We tend to hear about these strikes in drips and drabs over the course of months and years, but the report is the most comprehensive one I've seen on U.S. strikes in Yemen."

The report has been turned over to Ben Emmerson, the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, who is in the midst of an investigation into the civilian impacts of U.S. targeted killings and drone strikes abroad. The interviews contained within – collected by Alkarama, a Swiss-based human rights organization, and HOOD, an organization of lawyers and activists in Yemen – paint a violent picture of life on the receiving end of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the Arabian Peninsula.

Take the story of Salem Ben Ahmed ben Salem Ali Jaber, who died along with four others following a drone strike on the village of Khashamir in August 2012. A father of seven, Jaber was a popular imam and teacher, who had explicitly condemned al Qaeda and urged others to dismiss the organization. According to the report, "he was to meet with suspected members of Al-Qaeda who had criticized him for his stance" on the day he died.

Eyewitness Abu 'Issa Rajab Khamis Ba Rif'at described the scene as missiles ripped the imam's body to shreds. "Women and children immediately started screaming," he said. "Animals died, and the bodies of all those who died were disintegrated and scattered over a large area."

The report also describes airstrikes in Azzan, a city with 6,000 inhabitants, where militants have battled the Yemeni government for control. According to the report, the U.S. has backed the government's offensive with "air raids and drone strikes, killing dozens of members of armed groups designated as 'officers,' as well as many civilians creating an exodus of thousands of inhabitants." 

Investigators looked into a March 2012 strike in the city that killed two identified al Qaeda members and an unknown man, injuring six children in the process. "I was sitting with my friends there, and we were going to play football, when suddenly we were shaken by the sound of a violent explosion," said 13-year-old Amin Ali Hassan Al-Wisabi. "I looked in front of me and saw a car burning. A missile had struck it. Shrapnel hit me in my foot, but I didn't feel any pain, and I ran towards the house with blood flowing from my injury. I saw the car burning beside me and one of my friends lost consciousness."

A number of homes were destroyed in the strike on Azzan, and residents complained that the Yemeni government has done nothing in response to their substantial losses. In the meantime, they live in fear of being hit again. "Several inhabitants have expressed terror at the thought of another strike, expecting that they could be hit at any moment," the report states. "They do not understand why the bombings were carried out in cities when they could just as easily have targeted cars outside of residential areas, or why the suspects were killed rather than arrested."

The report reveals details regarding a May 2012 strike in the town of Ja'ar, where anti-government fighters had taken control at the time. According to investigators, the attack began with a missile strike against a home, killing the 33-year-old man inside. When residents gathered at the scene, they say an aircraft returned, fired several rockets, and killed 13 more men and one woman while injuring dozens of others and destroying a number of homes. The report notes, "Some witnesses are certain that it was an American plane because it was 'gray and eagle shaped,' while the Yemeni military would not have any such aircraft."

A witness named Abdallah Saleh Hussein told investigators what he saw that day: "After the first strike, I rushed to the scene with my son Muhammed, just like dozens of other people. We were trying to assist the victims when suddenly a second attack took place. I saw many bodies shredded. My son was hit by bomb fragments in the stomach and neck. He died quickly."

"To this day, I do not understand why they would be targeted," Fadhl Al-Dhali'i, a researcher and official at the Ministry of Education of Abyan, says in the report. "The consequences for the residents' peace of mind, especially the children, have been devastating for those who have experienced trauma. The victims have still not been compensated and our message to the international community and the Yemeni government is to come to the aid of the families of the victims."

While the report focuses heavily on U.S. drone strikes, it opens with an examination of devastation wrought by missiles fired from an American warship nearly four years ago. The now-infamous al-Maajala attack, launched early on the morning of December 17th, 2009, left over 50 people dead. At least 21 of them were children; 14 victims were women, half of whom were pregnant. 

Muqbil Salem Luqia Al-Anbouri, 64, told the human rights investigators that he was searching for a missing camel when the attack began. "It was a horror: flames everywhere on bodies, trees, and cars," he said. "The survivors were trying to rescue the injured and take stock of what happened. Around 8:30 people came together and gathered the remains of the bodies that had been scattered in the trees and on the ground. Most homes and properties were destroyed. Many animals, goats, sheep, and camels had perished."

According to the report, unexploded ordinance has continued to detonate in the days and years after the al-Maajala strike, killing eight people and injuring 33 others in three separate incidents. 

This May, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral . . . . We just don't." Facts are notoriously difficult to establish with certainty in targeted regions – but to the extent that this report accurately reflects conditions on the ground in Yemen, it raises serious questions about Kerry's assertion.

"The accounts here are, to say the least, inconvenient for the administration's talking points about the targeted killing program," Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells Rolling Stone. "The administration says its strikes are legal, moral and wise. Stories like these are critical for helping us evaluate how well those claims stand up."

Karim Sayad, Alkarama's regional legal officer for the Gulf, says the report aimed to bridge a divide between the people of Yemen and the United States. "The people there do not understand why millions of dollars are spent to bomb them as the cost of one single Hellfire missile could be used to build a road and provide villages with electricity," says Sayad. "So by telling these stories, naming victims, showing their families and their situation, we would like to raise awareness of the American public on what their government is doing in their name in order to make them react and ask for accountability and transparency for these attacks."

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