[The following report was submitted by Alkarama, in cooperation with Hood, to the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terror on 3 June 2013.]
The United States` War on Yemen: Drone Attacks
From the first air strike in November 2002 until the month of May 2013, there have been between 134 and 226 U.S. military operations in Yemen, including strikes by aircraft, drone missiles, or attacks launched from warships stationed in the Gulf of Aden. However, the exact number of operations is unknown due to the secrecy surrounding the United States’ military interventions in Yemen. As such, the number of casualties is also unknown. In a study of civilian victims of U.S. attacks in Yemen by Yemeni journalist Ali Al-Sha`bani, he notes the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about the number of strikes and people affected. In 2012, he counted 109 air strikes in nine provinces, causing the deaths of 490 people, including 390 civilians.
While the Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted nearly 1,150 deaths between 2002 and April 2013 due to U.S. attacks, Dennis Kucinich, a representative of the U.S. Congress, placed the number of deaths in Yemen at 1,952, in a speech to Congress. He says: "We have not declared war on any of these nations [Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia] but our weapons have killed innocent civilians there. Highly reputable research shows that the number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is estimated at about 2 percent." The head of national security in Yemen, Ali Hassan Al-Ahmady, announced that during 2012, a hundred members of al-Qaeda had been killed by U.S. aircraft strikes.
In the context of the review of Yemen’s period report by the Committee against Torture in May 2010, Alkarama referred to a missile attack by U.S. forces in the village of Al-Ma`jalah that caused the death of more than 50 people, including many children and women. Our organization continues to work on the issue of U.S. military intervention in Yemen. In collaboration with the organization Hood, Alkarama visited sites that had been targeted by drone attacks or U.S. military aircraft strikes. We have gathered testimonies evidence and placed attacks in their political context to enable better understanding of their objectives. However, it is necessary to add that this preliminary information gathered on-site cannot substitute a real investigation whose purpose is not only to confirm the type of attack carried out, but also to establish the chain of command and responsibilities of different actors.
The "Test Phase" of 2002-2009
From 2002, various U.S. agencies began to collect information on Yemeni combattants, especially on their places of residence, in order to eliminate them. The U.S. Deptartment of Defence coordinates covert operations and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is responsible for the operational side. It directs elite troops conducting covert operations by air, sea, and ground, and works closely with the CIA and the U.S. military.
On 3 November 2002, in a joint operation by the CIA and JSOC, Ali Al-Harithi – considered the most important terrorist in Yemen for having planned the attack against the USS Cole in 2000 – along with five other fighters, were targeted by a drone attack. Among them were three suspected members of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, as well as Ahmed Hijazi, aka Kamal Derwish, a US-Yemeni citizen that U.S. authorities have portrayed as being a member of a support group that had sent Al-Qaeda materials from the United States.
For the next seven years until 2009, no direct U.S. military intervention took place and it was not until the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States that the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen grew exponentially.
In Yemen, 2009 was a turning point. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) publicly announced its creation on 24 January, and in the United States, the decision was made by General David Petraeus, commander of CENTCOM, to extend military interventions, especially against AQAP. On 19 January 2010, the organization was formally classified by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.
At a meeting on 26 June 2009 between General David Petraeus and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the latter promised cooperation "without restrictions or conditions" in the fight against terrorism. Saleh reportedly said that the government would strive to pursue terrorists in the provinces of Jawf, Marib, Abyan and Hadramout. He also offered a better exchange of information between the two countries.
According to a cable from the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, at a meeting in September 2009 with John Brennan, President Obama former counter-terrorism adviser, former President Saleh granted U.S. forces full access to the territory to carry out anti-terrorist operations. As the Washington Post revealed in early 2010, U.S. military activities increased as of the end of 2009 and the joint efforts of Yemeni and U.S. forces resulted in more than two-dozen ground raids and airstrikes. Dozens of people were killed including six of the 15 men considered the main leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen. These attacks were approved by President Obama and carried out covertly by dozens of members of the JSOC.
The "Spring" of the Drones
In November 2009, two missile attacks targeted northern Sanaa, the exact number of victims of which remains unknown. On 17 December, the village of Al-Ma`jalah in Abyan province (see section 3.1) was hit by missiles fired from a U.S. ship and more than 50 people died, mostly women and children. On the same day a house in Arhab, a suburb of Sanaa, was attacked by a drone and four people were killed; on the 24th of the same month two attacks were carried out, one in Rafd in Shabwa province in which 34 people died, the other in the province of Abyan of which the death toll is unknown. Other attacks took place on 12, 15 and 20 January 2010.
After the attack on Al-Ma`jalah in which more than 50 civilians were killed, the attack of 24 May 2010 was another setback for the U.S. authorities: the deputy governor of Marib, Jaber Al-Shabwani and his companions (section 3.2) were killed. As a result, U.S. authorities made the strategic choice to use satellites, drones, and other methods they considered more accurate in the future. According to Hakim Almasmari, "The new approach is a significant escalation of the clandestine American war in Yemen and a substantial expansion of the CIA`s drone war."
Despite this decision, there were no further attacks by air or drone until May 2011, when the effects of the uprising that had begun three months earlier led to the creation and deployment of the Ansar al-Sharia group affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the south of Yemen. The Yemeni security forces were mobilized to protect a regime weakened by revolts, and were concentrated in the state capital and other strategic locations. In order to combat armed groups and to regain control of the situation, starting in spring 2011 the Yemeni army used airpower against insurgents in the southern regions while seeking the help of the Saudis and Americans. A major offensive was to be launched in spring 2012, but the popular uprisings were calmed by promises of reform. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was eventually replaced by his deputy, Abdul Rab Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate in elections held on 21 February 2012. President Hadi then intensified his cooperation with the Americans.
According to information received by an official of the Ministry of Defence who wishes to remain anonymous, a significant number of drone attacks were held between May and June 2011. They started in the province of Shabwa on 3 May. Luqman Abdullah, deputy governor of Abyan, said in mid-June 2011: "At least 130 people have been killed in the last two week by US drones." According to Ali Abdul Jabbar, director of Dar Ashraf Research Center, in May the drone attacks were aimed at targets in the province of Shabwa; in June, 80% of these were aimed at targets in Abyan. Khulani Ahmad, head of the monitoring committee that was established to assist in the evacuation of residents, said that more than 40,000 people fled Abyan province fearing drone attacks. Other figures show that some 142,000 people were displaced in Abyan in the first half of 2012. The majority of people in fact fled in March 2011 during attacks by the regular army.
To date, 2012 has been the deadliest year in terms of drone strikes or American aircraft attacks, which is clearly related to the Yemeni military offensive in the spring of 2012 against Ansar Al-Sharia, which had occupied a part of the south of the country for nearly a year, particularly in the province of Abyan and border regions. After these groups had been dislodged at the price of hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of people internally displaced, their members were hunted down in their places of origin or residence. Vehicles carrying them were often targeting, suggesting that local informants transmitted information about the groups. It seems that in some cases, microchips or the location of mobile phones may have helped in the location of wanted individual. Of these, some could have been easily apprehended and brought to justice, but it seems that the approach adopted by the U.S. and Yemeni authorities is one of physical elimination.
Different branches of the American security services, army, JSOC, and the CIA with the support of the Saudi and Yemeni air forces carried out dozens of attacks by aircraft or drones. The attacks targeted individuals and groups viewed as important terrorists, often while they were traveling in vehicles or meeting in homes.
These operations are conducted in a covert way but more and more officials and American experts have begun to speak out on the subject. Ultimately, it seems that few actual leaders of al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Sharia have been killed, while dozens of fighters have died. The American media have echoed this sentiment: "Last month, the White House approved broader targeting guidelines for CIA and military airstrikes in Yemen. U.S. airstrikes may now target militants whose names are not known but who have been deemed a threat to U.S. interests." This shift has serious implications because prior investigation or establishment of facts or charges against suspects is it no longer required.
Beyond this very uncertain distinction between combatant and civilian, it is clear that many people who are unquestionably civilians have been victims of these raids, whether because attacks failed or because they were deemed "collateral damage" during a strike on a specific target. Civilians bear the brunt of human and technical errors which politicians and the American military are willing to accept in order to continue the drone program. Yemen, following on the heels of Pakistan, has become the laboratory for new methods of warfare, which represent a technological, political, and legal revolution in combat methodology.
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