Yemen’s recent descent into crisis has prompted debate about whether U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration erred in calling its counterterrorism strategy in the country ― centered on drone strikes ― a success. In fact, as a new report, “Death by Drone,” shows, even if the current crisis had not erupted, the harm that U.S. drone strikes have done to Yemeni civilians should be enough to cause America to rethink its strategy.
The U.S. has been conducting drone strikes in Yemen since at least 2002, with estimates of the total number of strikes ranging from 90 to 198. While the American and Yemeni governments have lauded the drones’ precise targeting, they have refused to disclose key details about the strikes, including how many have been conducted, who has been targeted, or, crucially, the number and identities of civilians killed.
In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama offered assurances that, outside the Afghan war theater, no drone strike would be carried out unless there was “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” (He did acknowledge, in general terms, that U.S. drone strikes had resulted in civilian casualties.)
Obama also claimed that the U.S. targeted only “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and that it did not launch drone strikes when it has “the ability to capture individual terrorists.”
“Death by Drone,” which includes first-hand testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors of drone strikes in Yemen, tells a different story. The nine case studies documented in the report, four of which cover attacks that came after the 2013 speech, provide credible evidence that U.S. drone strikes have killed and injured Yemeni civilians, suggesting that the “near-certainty” standard is not being implemented effectively.
The report also casts doubt on Obama’s other claims, with evidence indicating that targets of drone strikes, though perhaps posing a threat to Yemen, may not have posed a direct threat to the U.S., and that their capture may have been possible. In other words, Yemeni civilians have suffered and died from drone strikes that may not have been necessary.
For the families of the civilians that have been killed, the lack of justification for ― or, indeed, direct acknowledgement of ― the strikes make them all the more difficult to accept. As the father of Nasser Mohammed Nasser, one of four innocent civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike on April 19, 2014, lamented: “My son and those who were with him had nothing to do with al-Qaida. They were simply on their way to earn a living. Why, then, did the American aircraft strike them?”
Of course, carrying out drone strikes in a faraway place, largely secretly, in the name of national security is relatively easy politically. It is even easier when the civilians who are affected by those strikes are poor and lack political influence, and thus have little capacity to draw attention to their plight.
As Yaslem Saeed bin Ishaq, whose son was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Wadi Sir on Aug. 1, 2013, observed, “They just kill. They do not know what havoc their missiles have caused. They are unaware of the suffering they create for our families.”
Indeed, if the U.S. never acknowledges the specific strikes, how can ordinary Americans possibly know that Rasilah al-Faqih, a pregnant Yemeni woman, was killed in Walad Rabei’, along with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, as they headed home from a visit to the doctor? Or that Abdoh Mohammed al-Jarraah’s house in Silat al-Jarraah had 19 people, including women and children, inside when it was decimated by a drone strike?
But, though the U.S. government’s continued silence on the attacks may help it at home, it is sending a damaging message in Yemen and beyond. As Moqbel Abdullah Ali al-Jarraah, a villager from Silat al-Jarraah, put it: “I believe that America is testing its lethal inventions in our poor villages, because (it) cannot afford to do so at any place where human life has value. Here, we are without value.”
In February 2013, then-White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan testified at his Senate confirmation hearing to become CIA director that, “in the interest of transparency,” the U.S. must acknowledge mistaken killings publicly. Later that month, he recognized that the U.S. government “should make public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al-Qaida.” The U.S. has done neither.
It should come as no surprise, then, that civilians like Nasser, who have lost mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters in U.S. strikes, are outraged not only at the U.S., but also at the Yemeni government, which consented to the attacks. In this sense, the drone strikes, far from making Yemen and the U.S. safer, could strengthen support for al-Qaida.
Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a new policy for drone exports, purportedly part of a broader effort to work with other countries to “shape international standards” on the use of drones and compel recipient states “to use these systems in accordance with international law.” But, as “Death by Drone” shows, the U.S. itself may not be complying with international law, or even with its own guidelines.
At this point, the U.S. continues to refuse to recognize the impact of its drone program on civilian populations. But, at the very least, it should not export to other countries the secretive and possibly illegal model of drone warfare that it is using in Yemen.
By Amrit Singh
Amrit Singh is the author of “Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen,” and a senior legal officer for national security and counterterrorism at the Open Society Justice Initiative. ― Ed.