Protesters loyal to the Shi'ite al-Houthi rebel group burn an effigy of a U.S. aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is U.S. interference in Yemen, including drone strikes, after their weekly Friday prayers in the Old Sanaa city April 12, 2013 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
Extensive interviews with families of drone victims and human rights organizations in Yemen indicate that the governments of the United States and Yemen are choosing to kill rather than attempting to capture suspected al Qaeda members in Yemen. Civilians who have no connection with Al Qaeda are killed when the U.S. uses drones to target Al Qaeda members who travel freely throughout the country. High unemployment and feelings of injustice for the killing of people in their area by drones and Yemeni air strikes provide a fertile recruiting ground for al Qaeda in Yemen. Yemen prisons in which young people have been detained and imprisoned for months and years without trial by the Government of Yemen is a key place where radicalization for armed groups, including al Qaeda, occurs.
I have been in Yemen for the past week with a CODEPINK: Women for Peace delegation that included Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, co-founders of CODEPINK, Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was killed in 9/11 attacks and represents 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, Pam Bailey, writer and human rights activist and Tighe Barry, CODEPINK art director. We have spoken with families of drone victims in Yemen, local and international human rights organizations based in Yemen, as well as families of prisoners in Guantanamo.
Two families of victims of drone strikes in the Jaar area in south Yemen said that many al Qaeda members pass freely through government checkpoints each day. The ability to go through checkpoints was underscored by a human rights activist in the Marib area.
Entsar Ali Al-Qadhi, Chair of the Marib Youth Council, said al Qaeda in her region are known to the government. They travel freely in the region and could be stopped at any of the 35 checkpoints between Marib and Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, if the government wishes. Several who have been killed by US drone attacks had been released from prison and had been reporting to a government office each month. Their locations were well-known to government officials. Entsar said that once a person is labeled as an al Qaeda member, there is nothing that person can do to erase the label, including renouncing violence, serving time in prison and reporting back to the government on a regular basis. Once labeled as al Qaeda by the U.S. government one remains on an assassination list no matter what one does, according to Al-Qadhi.
The Yemen government imprisons and then releases former al Qaeda members and then assists in the targeting and killing of those who have served their sentences for al Qaeda affiliation. The community knows that the released prisoners have to report frequently to the government as a part of their release. In Yemeni tribal customs, once a person is "cleansed" of their previous affiliations, they are allowed back into the community. When those who have been "cleansed" are then killed by U.S. drones, the recruitment for armed groups including al Qaeda increases.
Entsar said that some women in her community have told her that while they disagree with violent acts committed by some al Qaeda members, that at least they can talk with them in the community, whereas they can't communicate with a drone operator who is also committing violent acts. Sympathy increases for al Qaeda and other armed groups after a drone strike.
Al-Qadhi said that in January, 2013, there were five drone strikes in one day in the area where she lives around Marib. The first drone killed three brothers in the al Jaradh family. The eldest brother had been a member of al Qaeda, but had turned himself in to Yemeni authorities. He had been imprisoned, but had recently been released by the government. The other brothers were not known to be members of al Qaeda. The brothers had been driving in a car, spotted the drone, left their car and went into a garden where the drone attacked them. All three were killed.
Three hours later as the bodies of the al Jaradh brothers were taken for burial, a car carrying five people to their funeral was hit in a drone strike. The driver of the car was known to be an al Qaeda member, but the others in the car were not. Two hours later, another car in the Marib area was blown up by a drone strike. Four young men ages 16-18 were killed.
One human rights activist called al Qaeda the ATM for the Yemen government. When the government needs more money, officials pass the names of some al Qaeda member or a member of an armed group that the government is having difficulty with on to U.S. intelligence services.
Many contend that these al Qaeda could be captured, but the Government of Yemen gets funding for counter-terrorism programs when the U.S. can kill rather than the Government of Yemen capture suspected al Qaeda. Once the courts are used to adjudicate evidence for criminal acts, the need for assassin drones goes down and the U.S. bank roll for military programs is reduced. So, from the Government of Yemen's viewpoint, capture of suspected criminals clogs up the judicial and prison systems and becomes a burden on government resources while the killing of suspected criminals is easy and financially rewarding
Mohamed Akmadi, the Yemen investigator for the Geneva based international human rights organization Al Karama "Dignity," has investigated U.S. drone strikes throughout Yemen. Reports of Al Karama's investigations are sent to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions in Geneva.
The Al Karama investigation of a September 2, 2012 drone attack between the villages of Radaa and Dhamar in Al Bayda governorate revealed that a U.S. drone had attacked a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup carrying 12 people. Eight farmers in the pickup, one woman and two children were killed instantly and one person died later. Three were seriously wounded. The Yemen government initially said a Yememi military aircraft had fired on the truck and stated that the target was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab. Later, Yemeni officials acknowledged that all those killed were civilians and that it was an American drone that had killed them. In December, 2012, the U.S. government acknowledged its involvement but no U.S. official has been disciplined in the deaths of 13 innocent civilians.
The Al Karama group investigated another drone attack that occurred on April 17, 2013 in Wussab village, Dhamar district, 150 km south of Sanaa in which four persons were killed in the course of two drone strikes on their vehicle. The government of Yemen initially claimed an alleged leader of an armed group called Najm Al-Din Ali Abdallah Al-Ra'I had been killed in the drone attack. That claim proved untrue. One of the persons killed was Hamid Muhamad Radman Al-Hadadi Al Radami, a fomer member of the Yemeni army, who had been imprisoned in 2005 for having "illegally fought in Iraq." He was released from jail in 2011, two years after he was scheduled for release.
According to the al Karama investigation, Al-Radami was well known in his village of Wussab for efforts in mediation and negotiations since his release. The Al Karama report states that "if Mr. Al-Radami represented a serious threat, he was well-known in the community and it would have been easy for security forces to arrest him. Three other men from Wussab were killed in the attack, Ismaili Ahmed Muhamad Al-Muqdishi, age 29; Mukram Ahmed Hamud Al-Haj Al-Da'ar, age 20; and Ghazi Hamud Ahmed Saad Al-Imad, age 28.
In a June 10, 2013 letter, Al Karama requested that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions intervene with the United States and Yemen governments to "open a prompt, impartial, independent and effective inquiry on the chain of command and the procedures that allowed for the targeting, tracking and killing of four unarmed civilians, and that individuals responsible for the attack, whether they are American or Yemeni, are impartially judged for their acts." Al Karama also asks that "the U.S. government immediately reconsider its policy of targeted killings by unmanned aircraft systems, and to provide the families of those killed with proper and adequate redress."
The United States has not disciplined any of those involved in the targeting and assassination of 41 civilians in the December 17, 2009 airstrike in the al-Majalah region in southwestern Yemen. The strike killed a reported 41 people, including at least 21 children. The Yemeni government initially claimed that it had carried out the strike, but leaked US government cables later revealed that Yemen had covered up the United States' responsibility for the strike.