In the dusty highlands of Yemen sits the tiny village of al Ghayil. On January 29, with a fleet of drones and helicopters swarming above, about 30 U.S. Navy SEALs descended from the sky to attack two houses in al Ghayil. People were used to the sound of U.S. drones circling above, a constant menace in Yemen. But the approach of helicopters set off alarms. People grabbed their weapons and rushed to defend the village from unknown attackers.
The U.S. military responded by indiscriminately bombarding the entire village, destroying stone huts as families slept and gunning people down as they fled, even wiping out people’s livestock. About 23 unarmed civilians were killed, including at least nine children under the age of 13, one of them three months old. Between six and nine women were killed, including one who was pregnant, and one shot in the back of the head as she fled with her wounded baby in her arms. Unarmed men, including elders, were also killed.
Eleven-year-old Ahmed Abdelilah al Dahab was the first to die—stepping outside his home he asked the Americans, “Who are you?” and was fatally shot.
Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki bled to death after being shot in the neck.
Mohammed al-Ameri’s three children, ages 4, 5 and 7, all died when their home was destroyed by an air strike.
Abdallah al-Ameri, a 65-year-old subsistence farmer, was gunned down standing unarmed outside his home in al Ghayil.
One villager told Middle East Eye, “We all thought we would die that night. I’m so lucky that no one in my family was killed—but it’s so sad to see my neighbours killed without sin.” Others added: “You can’t imagine the forces that were dropped from the helicopters, and you can’t imagine the destruction to the village.”
Most al Ghayil residents fled after the first raid, having lost their cattle and their sense of security, but some stayed. On March 2, U.S. drones and helicopters came back and launched what a resident described as “indiscriminate shelling” of the ruined village. Later that day the U.S. launched air strikes in 20 locations in Yemen. On March 3, an air strike hit the home of Abdulelah, the surviving brother of the target of the January 29 raid, killing three members of his family. Late that night a drone strike hit a car he was in, killing four passengers, and possibly Abdulelah as well. On March 5, the U.S. again attacked al Ghayil. After that one of the last families fled and now lives under trees a few miles away.
Beatification of a War Criminal
In the course of the January 29 hour-long episode of mass murder, one U.S. Navy SEAL (Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens) was killed. (In addition, at least three others were wounded, and at least one $72 million Osprey helicopter was destroyed.) In the U.S. media and ruling class political circles, that was the “tragedy” of the al Ghayil raid. Owens was virtually elevated to sainthood by Trump when he spoke to the joint session of Congress in late February, declaring that he “died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero—battling against terrorism and securing our nation. … Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.” Democrats and Republicans rose to their feet as one for a 90-second-long ovation. Dozens of dead Yemeni civilians were just “collateral damage,” not even worthy of mention.
Al Ghayil is so small and remote that there are no population figures, nor indeed any statistics available, even on U.S. intelligence websites. That did not stop the U.S. military from making outrageous claims that al Ghayil was a heavily fortified terrorist military base, “defended by prepared emplacements and machinegun nests, and ringed by minefields.” (Middle East Eye) The military described one of the people they targeted as the leader of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula cell and said his home was a “fortified compound.” They claimed that the women they killed were armed combatants. They claimed to have uncovered a treasure trove of “intelligence” that will be used to “save American lives.”
But their whole narrative is filled with outright lies. Journalists have now visited al Ghayil and report that there are no fortified compounds, minefields, or machine gun nests. They have recorded detailed descriptions by villagers of how unarmed women and children were gunned down in, or fleeing, their homes.
And given that al Ghayil had neither electricity nor cell phone coverage, the idea that it was some nerve center of international terrorism is ridiculous. In the six weeks since the raid, the only “intelligence” the U.S. has been able to point to is an al-Qaeda instructional video, which has been available on the Internet for several years!
Yemen and its people have been plunged into a complex hell of civil war and foreign invasion, as reactionary forces battle for control, while the U.S. and its close ally Saudi Arabia back some of them with weapons and troops. In this complex situation, guns and the pervasive conflict between armed reactionary groups is part of the intolerable terrain that the U.S. helped create. And this has created conditions for reactionary fundamentalist Islamic jihadist groups to gain a following.
But under any circumstances, the idea that it doesn’t matter how many Yemeni children you massacre as long as you can claim that somewhere down the road it will save American lives—is immoral and opens the door to the most depraved crimes against humanity.
Bridge Between a Murderous Past and a Genocidal Future
On one level, the SEALs’ raid was not an “aberration”; it was a continuation of the violence that the U.S. has rained down on Yemen for many years.
In 2013, a U.S. drone strike on a wedding convoy in al Ghayil killed 11 or 12 civilians. The groom at that wedding survived but was murdered on January 29.
Nawar Anwar al-Awlaki, the eight-year-old who was killed in al Ghayil, was the daughter of an American citizen who was a propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and was assassinated in a drone strike in September 2011. A few weeks later, his 16-year-old son—Nawar’s older brother, who had no connection to AQAP—was also murdered in a drone strike. Now Nawar, too, has been killed.
On a national scale, 10,000 civilians have been killed in the U.S.-fueled civil war, mostly through massive Saudi bombing raids that have devastated crowded markets, hospitals, mosques, and funerals. And the Saudi blockade of fuel and other essential material going into Yemen has caused a famine—almost three quarters of Yemen’s 24 million people are now either “food insecure” or facing outright starvation.
But as criminal as past U.S. violence in Yemen has been, the al Ghayil raid seems to mark a pivot to a whole other level of carnage, foretold by Trump’s pledge to “exterminate” U.S. foes in the Middle East, and fueled by his regime’s open hostility to the Muslim world.
Under Obama, the U.S. sought to supplement military dominance with winning some sections of the people to politically support the U.S., and for that reason, the military was at least formally required to take steps to ensure with “near certainty” that there would be no civilian casualties in raids and drone attacks. However, the U.S. automatically defined all men of fighting age killed by the U.S. as “terrorists” (and therefore “not civilians”). And while these “precautions” were in effect there were numerous atrocities, including the attack on the wedding convoy mentioned here.
But the Trump/Pence fascist regime has a different approach to insuring U.S. dominance of the Middle East, one based very heavily on open terror and overwhelming force, a “kill them all and let god sort it out approach,” as expressed in Trump’s open pledges to torture opponents, to kill their families, to seize their oil, etc.
And since the al Ghayil raid, the U.S. military has been granted authority to declare more parts of Yemen “areas of active hostility,” where there is officially not even a pretense of trying to avoid civilian casualties. The new “standard” is merely that civilian casualties should be “proportionate”—an open-ended phrase that could justify any amount of slaughter.
What we seem to be seeing, then, is the U.S. turning down the path of open warfare against the people of Yemen, even while it is also escalating military actions and committing new atrocities in other parts of the region, particularly in Syria. This is an ominous development that cries out for condemnation and opposition by people in the U.S. and should fuel our determination and escalation of the struggle to drive out this regime as soon as possible, before the blood begins to flow in rivers.