During our visit to Yemen, three of us from the Codepink delegation flew to the southern coast, where many of the 138-231 U.S. drone and other covert attacks have hit since 2002. The families we wanted to interview live in the neighboring governorate of Abyan, a “gathering point” for Al Qaeda and other religious extremists. In a famous “hadith” [saying], Prophet Muhammad said, “An army of 12,000 will come out of Aden-Abyan. They will give victory to Allah and His messenger; they are the best between myself and them." Reportedly, it is this “army” from Abyan who will eventually free Jerusalem.
Most of our advisors warned us it was not safe for foreigners to venture into Abyan at this time, so we heeded their guidance and we made our headquarters in Aden, whose port lies in the crater of a dormant volcano. The families traveled to us, eager for any chance to tell their stories to a world they feel has abandoned them (both the central government to the north that is supposed to represent them and the countries that target them for their own aims – primarily the United States).
The tales we heard were heartbreaking. They also illustrate that the “truth” is not always black and white, and right vs. wrong can’t be easily summed up in a soundbite.
Consider the story told by Ahmed Abdullah Awadh:
It was 9 in the morning on Tuesday, May 15, 2012. Ahmed was at home with his 26-year-old son, Majed, in the small village of Ja’ar. Suddenly, they heard a loud explosion. The house of his neighbor, a man Ahmed described as a “nice, ordinary taxi driver,” was hit. Everyone in the largely residential neighborhood, including Ahmed and Majed, ran to see what happened and help rescue anyone who was hurt.
Awadh (right) gesticulates as he tells the story of the explosion, with his son Sabr by his side.
The 33-year-old taxi driver was dead; fortunately, the rest of his family had not been at home. Fifteen minutes later, as neighbors were still sorting through the rubble, there was a second strike in the same spot. This time, with almost the entire neighborhood concentrated in one location, the entire block was reduced to rubble, about 20 residents were injured and another 14-26 died – including his son, Majed. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 99-285 Yemeni civilians have been killed by covert U.S. military actions, including as many as 69 in 2013 alone.
Specifics are hard to come by when seeking the truth about covert attacks conducted by the United States, the Yemini military or – as is often the case – a collaboration of the two. Who did it, using what kind of weaponry, how many were killed and whether or not they were involved in militant groups are frequently subjects of speculation. Secrecy is the name of the game, and no one warns the families who live in targeted towns or offers explanations afterwards.
Likewise, there are no official local or international agencies that keep records. The only current central source of this information is the website of The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which logs each report of a confirmed or possible U.S. drone strike or other covert attack and includes links to often conflicting media coverage. In the May 15 attack on Ja’ar, the strike could have come from a jet fighter, based on the varying descriptions of what the villagers saw and heard, or from a drone, as suggested by the types of injuries. Which of the two countries actually dropped the missiles is uncertain as well, but it is generally accepted that if it was the Yemeni government, the United States was “in the know” or actively complicit.
“Majed was burned over 50 percent of his body,” recalled Awadh through an interpreter. “But there is only an emergency clinic in Ja’ar, and they said he was too seriously injured to be treated there. The nearest hospital is in Aden, and the main road was closed. It took four hours to get there. I held him in my arms while we were driving, and he kept bleeding. On the third day in the hospital, at 2:30 a.m., Majed’s heart stopped and he died.”
A son’s death is tragic in any circumstances, but for Awadh’s family, it had many ripple effects. Although Majed had graduated from high school, good jobs are available only to those who can afford to pay bribes. Still, he worked as a street seller of mobile phone accessories, and was a vital contributor to the family income. While some funds have been channeled to the community to help rebuild the homes, there is no compensation for the loss of productive family members.
(Of course, money can’t stand in for the death of a son, husband and father. Majed had just gotten married three months before the attack, and his wife was pregnant. Majed’s daughter, Huda, was born six months after her father’s death.)
Awadh and his fellow villagers, several of whom joined us at our hotel in Aden for the interview, insist the hapless taxi driver was no militant. However, they knew there were members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, living in the mountains around the community, often visiting the local market for food and supplies. And, he and the others said, they could easily have been captured if the political will was there.
Ansar al-Sharia effectively controlled Ja’ar from March 2011-June 2012, when they were driven out by a combination of government forces and the locally run militia. Many Yemenis believe former President Abdullah Ali Saleh – a U.S. ally until he was finally driven from office in 2012 by the popular revolution — set up the “occupation” of Ja’ar by ordering his forces to leave the area un-policed. Saleh was a master at alternating provoked violence and unrest with crack-downs to win more military money from allies such as the United States, which shapes its foreign policy almost totally through a counter-terrorism prism. Villagers’ perception of the actual individuals who are the face of AQAP/Ansar al Sharia varies. Some hate their extreme religious ideology and the violence they bring to their village – both their own and the air attacks they attract. Others see them as practical problem solvers who get things done in the absence of an effective, efficient government. Iona Craig, who writes for the London Times in Yemen, described to us her conversations with many villagers, who told her, for example, that when the group came in, land disputes that had festered for years were settled quickly and fairly.
That’s an important observation to remember when people even within Yemen, such as Nasser Arrabye (a translater for Jeremy Scahill, author of “Dirty Wars”), label everyone in a particular town as an Al Qaida “supporter.” When you’re trying to survive on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you do what you have to do. That same hard truth applies to many of the individuals who join AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia. As Awadh told us, “Those groups target unemployed youth. They give them money and weapons that make them feel important.” Abdurahman Barman from the human rights organization HOOD adds, “One Tomahawk cruise missile costs almost $2 million, and I assume even more is spent to launch it. If the U.S. dedicated just 10 percent of this money on education and employment, most of these kids would not become terrorists in the first place.”
Still, regardless of the presence of the rebel groups, both eyewitness and media reports agree that none of the killed and injured in the May 15 Ja’ar attack were fighters. Then there is the matter of the “double tap” strike – a common practice in which a target is hit twice, in close succession.
As in the case of Majed, 8-year-old Wafa, daughter of Mohammed Ahmed Baggash, was killed in a second strike. A mechanical engineer also living in Ja’ar, he had taken his daughter and one of his sons to the market to get groceries at about 10:30 a.m. on Wed., Sept. 7, 2011. Just as they arrived, a strike hit the town’s emergency clinic. Although they didn’t know it until the hit, Ansar al-Sharia had been using a storage area of the clinic to house a cache of weapons and food. Eight to 10 members of the group were killed. Baggash and his children ran to the local school to hide in the basement, afraid there might be another strike. Huddling on the floor, they tried to protect Wafa by sandwiching her between them. Sure enough, a second hit came, this time right in front of the school. Sabr, the son, suffered a wound in his leg, and Ahmed’s back was injured. And Wafa? She was lying in her brother’s lap, the back of her head a mass of blood and matted hair. She died on the way to the hospital in Aden.
“Whenever we gather for a meal, my wife says someone is missing,” says Baggash sadly. “We rent in the village now, because we hated staying in our house after that. Sabr had nightmares for six to eight months, and all of the kids in the community are terrified whenever they see or hear a plane.”
The rationale for these “second strikes” is reportedly exactly what it seems – to “mop up” additional militants, who come out to rescue their injured and claim their dead. Glenn Greenwald observed in a Salon article last year, “I ask this sincerely: What kind of country targets rescuers, funeral attendees and people gathered to mourn? If a Hollywood film featured a villainous king ordering lethal attacks on rescuers, funerals and mourners — those medically attending to or grieving his initial victims — any decent audience member would, by design, seethe with contempt for such an inhumane tyrant. But this is the standard policy and practice under President Obama and it continues through today.”
Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana told NPR, “The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen. There is, as far as I know, no attempt by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment.”
Bafana says that at the very least, Yemeni or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made and perhaps offer compensation. Or, even better, help build hospitals and schools, so local residents aren’t encouraged to join the militants.
Of course, the Yemeni government is complicit in the use of drones and other methods of extra-judicial killings. Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst and a founder of Tawqq, the Democratic Awakening Movement, explained to us that sometimes the strikes are initiated by the United States and the Yemeni government provides a “cover” by accepting a fax request for approval after the fact. Other times, it works the other way around, with the U.S. agreeing to target individuals identified by figures in the Yemeni government as enemies. One story that has become infamous within Yemen is that of Jabr al-Shabwani, deputy governor of the Marib governorate. According to Iryani and others, there was a commercial dispute between al-Shabwani and a military general who also was the head of the national security bureau. The general wanted to get rid of him, but had extended his “protection” to the head of al-Shabwani’s tribe. What to do? A U.S. drone strike! Members of al-Shabwani’s tribe responded to his killing by attacking the pipeline that carries oil from Marib to Ras Isa, a terminal on the Red Sea coast – causing a massive power outage and the suffering of many. A Yemeni official was quoted in June 2011 as attributing $1 billion in lost revenue to the pipeline blast.
Transitional president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has given blanket approval to U.S. covert actions in the fight against Al Qaeda. Nadia Al-Sakkaf — editor of the largest English-language newspaper in the country, the Yemen Times, and the only woman on the nine-member committee charged with managing the National Dialogue Conference – explained it to us this way: “Hadi is in a tight position. He is supposed to run the country and guide it into an uncertain future. But the Army was divided and until very recently, he only commanded 30 percent of it. He can’t even live safely in the presidential compound. His intelligence says there are10 terrorists in Sana’a right now with the mission of assassinating him. So, he feels very insecure; he doesn’t have a tribe like (former president) Saleh did to protect him. When the U.S. says it will take care of things for him, with drones, he doesn’t know of any other way.”
For the good of the country (and the global community), however, an alternative must be found. “In the fight against Al Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way (by killing), and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem,” said Iryani. “To truly fight Al Qaeda, we must deal with the root causes of its growth – poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law, hunger…and drone strikes.”
A case in point: What happened to Al Qaeda after it was driven out of Ja’ar? Some members were dead, obviously, but others simply moved a bit north to Shabwah or traveled to Syria to fight Bashar Assad. In other words, the attacks shuffled the problem around rather than eliminating it.
Amidst the gloom is a ray of hope: Bara’a Shiban, Yemen’s project coordinator for UK-based Reprieve, has worked hard to build broad-based support within the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) for a resolution banning extra-judicial killings, including the use of drones. To date, it has been adopted by more than 90 percent of members of two sub-committees, and is on its way to debate by the entire 565-member conference. If passed – and everyone we talked to thinks it has a good chance of being adopted – its implementation will be mandatory by the country’s new government that will follow the completion of the NDC’s work.
Now, that’s what democracy looks like!
A brave “uncovered” woman speaks at the National Dialogue Conference, convened to create a “New Yemen.”