US Drone Strikes Surged During Yemen Uprising

by Kevin Gosztola

A new study out from the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) provides some of the clearest accounting yet of the United States’ covert war on terror in Yemen, including the use of drone strikes. It shows that seventy-five percent of US drone attacks there have taken place since May 2011 during the instability created by the uprising in Yemen.

Altogether, TBIJ finds 44 US attacks have taken place in Yemen. About 34 of them have happened since May of last year. Somewhere between 275-390 people have been killed. Fifty-four to one hundred of those have been civilians while 221-289 have been “alleged militants.”

Data on recent attacks reveals an escalation in drone strikes this month. The number of attacks are now equal to, if not more than, the number of CIA drone attacks in Pakistan.


The surge suggests the US has been taking advantage of the newly appointed president in Yemen, Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, who replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh in the last week of February. During his inaugural speech, Hadi pledged to “keep up Yemen’s fight against al Qaeda-linked militants” and he said, “Everything we do in the counterterrorism realm, we do in full partnership with our Yemeni counterparts…Our assistance takes many forms: training, advice, different types of equipment.” And President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser called Hadi “a good and strong counterterrorism partner.”

A part of TBIJ’s study examines a “civilian massacre the US will neither confirm nor deny” that occurred on December 17. At least one US cruise missile “loaded with cluster bombs” hit al-Majala. The US was targeting Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri, a “known militant who had allegedly been ‘bringing nationals from different countries to train them to become al Qaeda members.’” He was believed to be a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the attack didn’t just kill Al-Anbouri.

The attack on al-Majala in Abyan in southern Yemen killed forty-one civilians. Twenty-two children were killed. A dozen women were killed. Five of the women killed were pregnant. [A complete list of the victims has been published by TBIJ here.]

Yemen’s parliament convened a “Commission of inquiry into the security incidents in the Abyan province.” What the Commission found when visiting the cemetery was “grisly.” The victims were buried in “communal graves” because they could not be identified. “Their bodies had been completely torn into pieces during the attack.”

A tribal leader, Sheik Saleh Ben Fareed, told journalist Jeremy Scahill: “If somebody has a weak heart, I think they will collapse. You see goats and sheep all over. You see heads of those who were killed here and there. You see children. And you cannot tell if this meat belongs to animals or to human beings. Very sad, very sad.”

As the world now knows because WikiLeaks published a US State Embassy cable on a meeting in early January 2010 between Saleh and then-CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, Saleh told Petraeus the Yemen government would continue to say “the bombs are ours, not yours.” The Yemen government would cover up the attacks to help the US keep them covert. And, though Saleh expressed concern about the inaccuracy of the missiles and the number of civilians killed, this would enable the US to avoid an investigation.

The Yemen government apologized to the victims. They “paid out compensation at local levels to affected families.” The US State Department and CENTCOM, which hold responsibility for the covert operation that killed the civilians, has done nothing.

The lack of action has prompted TBIJ to ask what investigations the US carried out into the December 17 attack, what further investigations were conducted after the commission inquiry by the Yemeni parliament, what disciplinary measures have been taken against US personnel involved, and what compensation, if any, was paid by the US to surviving members of the families attacked on that day.

TBIJ also looked at claims that the Yemen Air Force has carried out “some precision strikes.” The organization found that the Yemen Air Force is “incapable of precision or night-time attacks.”

“Local sources and western experts describe the Yemeni air force as decrepit and inadequate, in part due to corruption,” TBIJ reports. Pilots lack “navigation instruments” because of “corruption in military procurement.” And, on January 22, “pilots and ground crew went on strike” against “corruption and nepotism.” Thousands of air force members took to the streets.

A comprehensive timeline compiled by TBIJ shows when the covert drone war really began. In November 2001, CIA Director George Tenet “won Saleh’s approval to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over the country.” Camp Lemonier in Djibouti “housed” the drones.

On November 3, 2002, just months after Yemen was designated a “‘combat zone’ in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,” the first targeted assassination involving a drone occurred. Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, an alleged mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing, and Abu Ahmad al-Hijazi, a US-born Yemeni suspected of recruiting a terror cell recently “rounded up in Buffalo, New York,” were struck by a “CIA Predator.” Four others believed to be from the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army were killed as well.

Then-assistant US Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared on CNN, “It’s a very successful tactical operation, and one hopes each time you get a success like that, not only to have gotten rid of somebody dangerous but to have imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures.”

The drone strike was viewed as a “truly disturbing development’ by UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Asma Jahangir. In January 2003, a UN report stated:

The Special Rapporteur is extremely concerned that should the information received be accurate, an alarming precedent might have been set for extrajudicial execution by consent of Government. The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against the excesses of non-State actors or other authorities, but these actions must be taken in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. In the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the attack in Yemen constitutes a clear case of extrajudicial killing.

Almost a decade later, the “alarming precedent” has become a normal act of the US government. Not only has President Barack Obama continued to engage in covert warfare, but he has also expanded the covert war in Yemen—and Pakistan and Somalia—in such a way that the Bush Administration could never have done. In fact, his administration has mounted an effort that essentially perverts national and even international understanding of the rule of law so that extrajudicial executions without charge or trial can be seen as legal.

As AP‘s Kimberly Dozier wrote in an article published on October 1, 2011, drones have become “the weapon of choice of the Obama Administration.” Drones killed US-born Anwar al-Awlaki and US citizen Samir Khan, along with Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son in September of last year. Drones have also been the Obama Administration’s preferred tool in efforts to go after al Qaeda in “safe havens” in Pakistan.

The Obama Administration is on the frontier of making state-sanctioned murder in the perpetual “war on terrorism” available to all future presidential administrations. It has functioned with a sense of impunity and callousness similar to the Bush Administration and has wholly refused to investigate, take responsibility for, or even acknowledge that drone attacks do, in fact, kill unarmed innocent civilians.

What TBIJ’s study shows is how entrenched the covert drone war has become in US military operations and American foreign policy. A wide consensus has been built over the past decade. Morality and legalities aside, drones are the future of warfare abroad and anyone opposed to this reality will be drowned out by the roar of the Predators as they take off to attack their next target and the next civilians, which the US will officially refuse to take responsibility for killing.

This article originally appeared on The Dissenter on March 29, 2012.