How much of the drone war being waged by the United States in Yemen is targeting actual al Qaeda fighters? And how much of it is targeting fighters, who are opposed to the current regime led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi?
In three days, three possible drone strikes launched apparently in cooperation with Yemeni forces has killed anywhere from 38 to 55 people. Anywhere from three to eight of those people were reportedly civilians yet, thus far, the identities of the other people killed have not been confirmed.
According to data from news reports compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), on April 19, two cars were hit by a US drone in the southeastern province of al Bayda. All reports “described an attack on a vehicle carrying alleged militants, in which a separate vehicle full of civilians was also hit.”
On April 20, alleged Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) training camps were targeted and hit by a “series of air strikes.” Officials would not disclose whether US drones were involved.
The Ministry of Interior claimed in a statement that “air strikes, which lasted for several hours, killed around terrorists from al Qaeda, including three movement leaders.” The “dead suspected militants” were Salem Abedrabbo al Mushaybi, Hussein al Mehrak and Saleh Saeed Mehrak.
During a third straight day of strikes, “an ambush by the Yemen Army’s Counter-Terrorism Unit with US Special Forces support or a drone strike followed by a Special Forces ground operation to retrieve bodies of suspected senior militants” was carried out. “Yemeni security officials and tribal chiefs reportedly said ‘a local militant commander’, Munnaser al Anbouri, was killed in the attack.”
Media organizations seemed to presume that “Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s "master bomb maker” were probably targeted and possibly even killed. That would explain the escalation in operations in the country. However, “the bodies of some militants who were killed,” according to NBC News, were flown to the capital, Sanaa, for DNA testing and no top-ranking leader had been identified yet.
The NBC News report from Jim Miklaszewski, Richard Engel, Courtney Kube and James Novogrod is remarkable for how clearly it is stenography, a regurgitation of an official statement from an unnamed official in Yemen. The headline for the story is “Yemen Killed 40 Al-Qaeda Militants With US Drone Help.” None of the words are appropriately placed in quotes. The headline is not “Yemeni Official Says Yemen Killed 40 Al-Qaeda Militants With US Drone Help.” Statements which are impossible to confirm are accepted as true.
This is how the unnamed Yemeni official described the “counterterrorism operations” to NBC News:
—The first phase began Saturday morning, with an airstrike on a militant vehicle that the official said was part of a terrorist training camp. The source said 10 militants were killed along with three civilians. Five civilians were hurt.
— In the second phase, the camp itself was hit by airstrikes — three of them, from the predawn Sunday until after daybreak. The camp was not a “brick-and-mortar facility,” the official said, but had vehicles and weapons caches. At least 24 militants were killed.
— In the third phase, Yemeni commandos raided suspected high-value al Qaeda targets believed to be leaders of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. Identification was still underway, but the Yemeni source said it did not appear any top militants were killed.
Ryan Goodman of Just Security noted how the ongoing actions may have been against people who posed no imminent threat to the United States but were considered by Yemeni officials to be threats to their government:
…First, according to Yemeni officials, recent actions were in response to a threat to civilian and military installations at least in Bayda province…The statement by the state news agency also added that the militants killed in the strike were responsible for the assassination of Bayda’s deputy governor on April 15. Those sound more like fighting an insurgency rather than fighting AQAP’s direct threat to the United States. Second, the strikes were described as a joint U.S.-Yemen operation by the Yemeni official who spoke to CNN. And he explained that Yemeni troops would have faced heavy losses if they had attempted a ground assault themselves…
Five “security/military” officers have apparently been assassinated since yesterday following the three strikes, according to Iona Craig, a journalist based in Yemen. To what extent are their deaths a part of the cycle of violence?
Then, there is the reality that these operations undertaken with support from US drones infuriate and upset Yemenis. When civilians are killed, “tribesmen” are driven to join up with AQAP or any of its associated groups, which the US keeps classified and does not want the public to know.
Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al-Iryani recently told Reuters that the sharp escalation in the “number of al Qaeda elements” since drones first started to bomb Yemen in 2003—from a “few hundred” to “several thousand”—is partly fueled by the “fact that both the Yemeni and the US governments have relied too heavily on the use of drones.” Not adopting a “proper, comprehensive approach” to systemic problems in Yemen has “contributed to the expansion of al Qaeda.
That basic coverage of events would not mention or give a nod to these dynamics at all is at best negligent. Also, there should be some mention of the secrecy, which enables the government to wage drone war without accountability for what is happening before, during and after operations when people are killed.
No formal agreement on drones apparently exists between the US and Yemen—or at least that is what unnamed Yemeni officials have claimed.
According to Human Rights Watch, a Yemeni government official, as well as a senior Yemeni government official under Saleh, told the organization when it was investigating an attack that hit a wedding convoy last December that they were unaware of any signed agreement between Yemen and the United States on drone strikes. However, “there is a gentlemen’s agreement,” the current official said.
One might recall a now-infamous US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks and released by Chelsea Manning. It indicated in early January 2010 Saleh and then-CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus had a meeting. Saleh assured Petraeus the Yemen government would continue to say “the bombs are ours, not yours.” The Yemen government would cover up attacks to help the US keep them secret. And, though Saleh expressed concern about the inaccuracy of the missiles and the number of civilians killed, this would enable the US to avoid scrutiny and accountability for its counterterrorism operations.
What the arrangement also did was allow Saleh to take credit for operations in his country and make it seem like he had the capacity and strength to respond to arising conflicts and violence. This seems to continue, as the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt quoted “American officials” who “sought to play down the United States’ role and to allow” Hadi to “bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations.”
Claiming credit means being able to deceive the Yemeni population, which might be outraged to learn about more US drone strikes. But, as the operations have been undertaken, it is fairly clear that the US has encouraged Yemeni government officials to create this deception that they were leading these operations. US forces, including drones, only provided a little assistance.
Is that the truth? Would any of this recent offensive been possible without US forces engaged in covert operations? Where is the lack of skepticism toward reports about who exactly was killed when it can be discerned that both Yemeni and US officials do not know?
These are the questions that should be at the forefront of coverage but are not.