“The 24-year-old Ibrahim Mothana speaks eloquently and insightfully about what the US is doing to his country. We should listen.”
Ibrahim Mothana is a 24-year-old Yemeni writer and activist. I first became aware of him when he wrote an extraordinary Op-Ed in the New York Times last year urging Americans to realize how self-destructive and counter-productive was Obama’s escalating drone campaign in his country, writing:
Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. . . .
“Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. . . . Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes. . . .
“Unfortunately, liberal voices in the United States are largely ignoring, if not condoning, civilian deaths and extrajudicial killings in Yemen — including the assassination of three American citizens in September 2011, including a 16-year-old. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the rage would have been tremendous. But today there is little outcry, even though what is happening is in many ways an escalation of Mr. Bush’s policies.
“Defenders of human rights must speak out. America’s counterterrorism policy here is not only making Yemen less safe by strengthening support for A.Q.A.P. [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] but it could also ultimately endanger the United States and the entire world.”
Since then, I’ve watched his work and have periodically spoken with him on various matters, and am unfailingly impressed by the thoughtful, smart and sophisticated way he thinks about these issues. Ibrahim was invited to travel to Washington to testify before a Senate sub-committee which met last week to examine the legality and wisdom of Obama’s drone program. He was unable to attend, so one of his friends, Farea al-Muslimi, testified instead, and was eloquent and powerful.
But Ibrahim prepared what would have been his opening remarks to the Committee and has sent them to me (the Committee has also agreed to publish them in the Congressional Record). I’m publishing them here in full because they are remarkably insightful and poignant, and because Americans hear far too little from the people in the countries which their government continues to bomb, attack, and otherwise interfere in. I really hope as many people as possible will take the time to read his words:
Written testimony of Ibrahim Mothana for the United States Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide my written testimony on the critical issue of the increasing US targeted killings in Yemen.
Yemen and the United States of America
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I would like to tell you about my country. The people of our two countries share many of the same dreams although many Americans may not realize this, in part because of a media that focuses on terrorism to the exclusion of a broader understanding of Yemen. Al-Qaida and its associates in Yemen, at the most extreme estimates, number a few thousand members, no more than a tiny fragment of our 24 million people who hope and dream of a better future — one that offers them dignity, freedom, and economic stability.
We are the poorest country in the Middle East with over 50 percent of our people living on less than 2 dollars a day. We are running out of water and out of oil, our major source of foreign revenue. Our nation has been troubled by decades of conflicts and an irresponsible, corrupt governments. A lot of my childhood friends are unemployed and live a daily struggle to maintain their basic human needs. In 2011, millions of Yemenis who lived decades under one autocratic ruler rose up in a largely peaceful revolution calling for democracy, accountability and justice, the very values cherished in American democracy.
Many young people like me grew up looking to America and its people for inspiration. Among many other things my teenage years were enriched by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches, Mark Twain’s sarcasm and American TV shows. The promise of equality and freedom seemed fulfilled when America elected its first black president. With an upsurge of happiness, many Yemenis celebrated the inauguration day and, at that point, President Obama was more popular among my friends than any other Yemeni figure. I was inspired by President Obama’s promise of “a new era of leadership that will bring back America’s credibility on human rights Issues and reject prioritizing safety to ideals.”
But happiness and inspiration gave way to misery. My admiration for the American dream and Obama’s promises has become overshadowed by the reality of the American drones strike nightmare in Yemen.
The Impact on Yemen and its People of the US Targeted Killing Policy
In the past few years, I have visited and worked in areas of Yemen that are the forefront of what the United States views as a global conflict against Al-Qaeda and associated forces. I have witnessed how the US use of armed drones and botched air strikes against alleged militant targets has increased anti-American sentiment in my country, prompting some Yemenis to join violent militant groups, motivated more by a desire for revenge than by ideological beliefs.
We Yemenis got our first experience with targeted killings under the Obama administration on December 17, 2009, with a cruise missile strike in al-Majala, a hamlet in a remote area of southern Yemen. This attack killed 44 people including 21 women and 14 children, according to Yemeni and international rights groups including Amnesty International. The lethal impact of that strike on innocents lasted long after it took place. On August 9, 2010, two locals were killed and 15 were injured from an explosion of one remaining cluster bomb from that strike.
After that tragic event in 2009, both Yemeni and US officials continued a policy of denial that ultimately damaged the credibility and legitimacy of the Yemeni government. According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, in a meeting on January 2, 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi joked about how he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni parliament the bombs in the al-Majala attack were dropped by the Yemenis, and then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a promise to General Petreaus, then the then head of US central command, saying: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Such collusion added insult to injury to Yemenis.
Animosity has been heightened by the US use of so-called “signature strikes” that target military-age males and groups by secret, remote analysis of lifestyle patterns. In Yemen, we fear that the signature strike approach allows the Obama administration to falsely claim that civilian casualties are non-existent. In the eye of a signature strike, it could be that someone innocent like me is seen as a militant until proven otherwise. How can a dead person prove his innocence? For the many labeled as militants when they are killed, it’s difficult to verify if they really were active members of groups like AQAP, let alone whether they deserved to die.
In Yemen, we know that the reliability of the intelligence the United States uses to launch and report drone strikes is questionable. For instance, the Yemeni authorities have claimed three times that Saeed al-Shiri, the second-in-command of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was killed by a drone strike. According to Yemeni and international media, at least 30 other suspected militants were announced to be killed in these strikes. But as recently as April 8, 2013, Shihri appeared to be alive. So who were the dozens of people killed in the three strikes that allegedly killed Shihri?
In the majority of cases, we Yemenis receive no explanation about why suspected militants are killed and what threat they posed to the United States. If the intelligence misidentified Shihri, the suspected militants who were killed in these incidents might just be random people who were in the wrong place.
We Yemenis are deeply worried that the Obama administration appears to be avoiding the Guantanamo dilemma of indefinite detentions without charge by killing suspects in Yemen rather than trying to capture them. An example is the November 7, 2012 targeted killing of Adnan al-Qadhi, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Yemeni army and reported to be a suspected al-Qaida militant in Sanhan, a district 22 miles east from the Yemeni capital and a 15-minute drive from where I live. Sanhan is near to one of the biggest bases of the Republican Guard, at the time one of Yemen’s most powerful military units. According to his family members, Yemeni authorities could have arrested Adnan any time. Adnan’s brother Hemyar al-Qadhi told me, “Adnan was arrested and released by the government in 2008 and we would’ve taken him ourselves to the authorities if they requested him again.”
We Yemenis ask ourselves, how many more of our citizens were killed without any attempt at capture instead? Why is it that in the four years that John Brennan was the top counterterrorism advisor, only one so-called “high-value target” was arrested anywhere outside the United States?
More Human Costs and the Consequences of US Targeted Killing Policy
During my visits to Abyan, Shabwa and Radaa, three areas of central and southern Yemen where the US has carried out targeted killings, I was overwhelmed with sadness meeting families of drone victims suffering a miserable combination of personal loss and devastating economic burden. Many of the children of strike victims that I saw were severely malnourished and families who lost their main financial provider had little hope for the future. For many of the youngsters, death seemed an easier burden than life so, with this bleak outlook, they joined the fight against the government.
With drones flying overhead 24/7, people are living in constant fear and anxiety over the possibility of another strike. During my visits to these areas, I shared their fear. I felt as Adel al-Jonaidi, a high school student living in Radaa did, when he told me, “Whenever drones are hovering in the area, it’s like being in a state of waiting endlessly for execution.”
The more unjustified the drone strike victim, the more rage it creates within local communities. Angry reaction followed in Hadramout when Salem Ahmed Bin Ali Jaber, a moderate cleric who often denounced violence and publicly opposed al-Qaeda, was killed in a drone strike on August 25, 2012. Such strikes call into question US claims of tidy surgical strikes and explain why the number of AQAP estimated fighters increased from a few hundred in 2009 to a few thousand in 2013, according to Yemeni and US government estimates.
In another botched strike, a missile struck a passenger van in central al-Bayda governorate on September 2, 2012, killing 12 civilians, 3 of them children. Local and international media initially quoted anonymous Yemeni officials as saying the strike targeted militants, but state-run media later conceded the killings were an “accident” that killed civilians. During a recent visit to Radaa, the city near the attack site, I met Mohamed Mabkhoot, a relative of one of the civilians who was killed. Mabkhoot explained how months after the attack there is still mounting rage at the apathy and inability of the Yemeni government to bring justice for those affected by the strike.
“Our lives are not worthless and it’s common sense that people start hating America when their innocent relatives and family members are killed. Young people here are desperate and will fight to die if they don’t have anything left for them to live for,” he told me.
Drone strikes and US military intervention are the rallying cry that al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen use to recruit more fighters. In a country like Iraq, al-Qaeda was created from scratch after 2003, seizing on the existing local grievances the war created. Something similar is happening here in Yemen. During my visits to different parts of my country, even though I hear broad opposition to AQAP, I also hear objections to foreign intervention by the United States.
Even natural allies of the United States like young leaders, intelligentsia and the upper middle class feel that the targeted killings infringe on Yemen’s sovereignty. Many of us ruefully repeat a line from one President Obama’s press conference on November 18, 2012: “There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”
Moreover, it’s vital to grasp the intricacies of our society’s reality, where tribal dynamics and laws are vital in largely under-governed areas. In Yemen, killing a person without trial is not only extrajudicial, it also violates the sovereignty and dignity of the entire tribe to which the slain person belonged. Each tribe is responsible for defending and ensuring the safety of its members. Understanding the tribal system and traditions is key to winning hearts and minds of the local populations and to gaining their support. The lack of any apology, compensation or damage control-mechanisms, outrages tribes and local populations in the affected areas.
In one case, a drone strike exacerbated my country’s already serious political and economic difficulties. On May 25, 2010, a US drone strike killed Jabr al-Shabwani, a prominent sheikh and deputy governor of Marib province who was a US counterterrorism ally After Sheikh Shabwani was killed by the strike, his tribe carried out retaliatory attacks on my country’s main oil pipeline, which runs through Marib, costing Yemen billions of dollars. This is no small matter when you consider that 70 percent of Yemen’s national budget relies on oil exports. The strike also erased years of progress and trust-building between the US and other tribes who had helped fight Al Qaeda in their areas; they considered the killing a betrayal.
The Targeted Killing Policy is Counter-Productive
Many of us in Yemen believe that even strikes that kill AQAP leaders can be counterproductive. The short-term military gains are miniscule compared to the long-term damage that the targeted killing program causes. In the place of one slain leader, new leaders swiftly emerge in furious retaliation for attacks in their territories. And with each strike, it becomes ever easier to belong to a militant group in the region where your tribe lives.
As Khaled Toayman, a young Sheikh from Marib and a son of a Yemeni member of parliament told me, “We are against terrorism and we seek to live in peace and dignity like anyone else in the world. I don’t hate America or Americans. I just want to know why my relatives are killed.”
In my visits to the areas affected by drone strikes, I observed an increasing sentiment that America is part of a problem and not a solution, something that is hard for diplomats to feel while living disconnected from Yemenis in the emerging Green Zones of Sanaa. In Yemen, it’s impossible to win a war with drone strikes where basic services and human needs remain unmet. For a loaf of bread, you can push a hungry, desperate and angry young man to fight for al-Qaeda, possibly regardless of his ideological beliefs.
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, we Yemenis are the ones who suffer the most from the presence of Al Qaeda and getting rid of this exhausting plague is a top priority for the majority of people in the country. But we also see that there is no easy way to end terrorism. Only a long-term approach that strengthens democracy, accountability and justice, together with programs to address structural economic and social drivers of extremism can bring about security in my country.
When I think of solutions, I think of our common ideals. The drone program is far from these. Edward S. Herman offers us a critique and an opportunity in his reflection on Hana’s Arendt concept of the Banality of Evil: “Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.’ “
As a Yemeni citizen, I urge the US government not normalize crimes committed under the name of your great country. I call on the US administration to be transparent regarding the strikes it has authorized in Yemen and to compensate affected civilians. I call on the United States to critically reflect on using targeted strikes and the existing counterterrorism policy in Yemen and to see that, it is insecurity and not security that these are creating in my country, the region, the US, and the entire world.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian UK on May 1, 2013.