(Updated on Sunday, August 11)
Nonstop fear mongering by lawmakers and White House officials about the allegedly growing threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has pushed Yemen into the national spotlight as a country synonymous with terrorism. Yemen is home to the scary bearded terrorists that want to kill our innocent American children, or so the mainstream narrative goes. But contrary to popularly indoctrinated opinion, if anyone is a terrorist in this scenario, it is us, the United States.
Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries and is currently facing a child hunger crisis,. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from terrorizing the population with drone strikes. For over a decade, Yemenis have watched their neighbors, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children blown to pieces by U.S. bombs all in the name of keeping Americans safe.
In the last two weeks alone the U.S. has launched
five seven eight nine drone strikes in Yemen, three of which occurred in one day. Thus far, the mainstream press has echoed U.S. and Yemeni government claims about the identities of the dead despite the Obama administration’s flawed method for counting casualties. As the New York Times revealed last year, the Obama administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. But that hasn’t stopped the Associated Press from reporting on August 8 that, “Two U.S. drone strikes killed a total of nine suspected al-Qaida militants Thursday, a Yemeni military official said.” The AP more recently claimed that drone strikes have killed 38 susupected militants since July 27 because officials in the Yemeni government, which coordinates closely with the U.S., say so, even those same officials routinely describe the bodies of the dead as “badly burned” almost always beyond recognition.
Last Wednesday, US and Yemeni officials bragged that U.S. drone strike thwarted a terrorist plot to seize control of two major cities in Yemen and bomb oil and gas pipelines. But, according to the New York Daily News, the plot “was meant as payback for the killing of senior al Qaeda official Said al-Shihri in a November drone attack.” (Al-Shihri was labeled AQAP’s number two man at the time. Haven’t we killed their number two guy like five times already? Oh right, militants are easily replaceable.)
Blowback is a significant though rarely discussed aspect of the U.S. war on terror, especially in regard to drone strikes. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has long warned that U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen serves as a primary recruiting tool for Al Qaeda . Why? Because drones strikes don’t just terrorize, they make people, particularly those who’ve lost innocent loved ones, really fucking angry. And who can blame them?
Speaking to a Senate Judiciary Committee in April on the legality of drone strikes, a Yemeni man named Farea Al-Muslimi explained the roots of blowback in Yemen. “Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers,” said Al-Muslimi,
“What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” Al-Muslimi said he had witnessed “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula use US strikes to promote its agenda and try to recruit more terrorists.”
If that’s not enough to convince you that we’re creating enemies, consider the aftermath of a drone strike last September that killed 13 civilians in Yemen:
Families of the victims closed main roads and vowed to retaliate. Hundreds of angry armed gunmen joined them and gave the government a 48-hour deadline to explain the killings, which took place on Sunday.
“You want us to stay quiet while our wives and brothers are being killed for no reason. This attack is the real terrorism,” said Mansoor al-Maweri, who was near the scene of the strike.
Residents are not denying the existence of al Qaeda elements in their region but say that misdirected strikes work in favor of the militant group, helping them recruit new operatives.
“I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake,” said Nasr Abdullah, an activist in the district of the attack. “This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”
This doesn’t mean that Yemenis love Al Qaeda, it’s quite the opposite. But compared to the threat of U.S. drone strikes, AQAP isn’t their primary concern according to Hakim Almasmari, an American journalist based in Yemen. Almasmari told the Huffington Post yesterday that, “The Yemeni people are not afraid of al Qaeda, because al Qaeda will always fight and attack soldiers and troops and militants. They will never attack civilians. Whereas the drones at times will attack civilians — like in the last 10 days, out of the 13 who were killed, three were civilians.”
Almasmari continued, “Yesterday all night you had drones flying all over Sana’a, and this was very worrying. People were at home sitting and afraid that this could go wrong like it went wrong earlier years ago when tens of civilians were killed in previous drone strikes.”
In the winter of 2009, a U.S. airstrike on al-Majala in southern Yemen wiped out entire families, killing 41 civilians including five pregnant women and 22 children, the youngest just a year old.
Mohammed Nasser Awad Jaljala, 60, his 30-year-old wife Nousa, their son Nasser, 6, and daughters Arwa, 4, and Fatima, aged 2, were all killed.
Then there was 35-year old Ali Mohammed Nasser Jaljala, his wife Qubla (25), and their four daughters Afrah (9), Zayda (7), Hoda (5) and Sheikha (4) who all died.
Ahmed Mohammed Nasser Jaljala, 30, was killed alongside his 21-year old wife Qubla and 50-year old mother Mouhsena. Their daughter Fatima, aged 13, was the only survivor of the family, badly injured and needing extensive medical treatment abroad.
The Anbour clan suffered similarly catastrophic losses. Abdullah Mokbel Salem Louqye died with his wife, son and three daughters. His brother Ali Mokbel Salem Louqye’s seven-strong family were also wiped out.
Sheik Saleh Ben Fareed, a tribal leader, went to the area shortly after the attack and described the carnage to Al Jazeera reporter 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.’
In case watching one’s family blasted to death isn’t enough, drone strike victims must now think twice before rushing to the scene of an attack to help the wounded in case of a “double-tap“, a follow-up strike that targets rescuers and mourners and is a war crime according to UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Christof Heyns.
A recently released report on U.S. drone strikes in Yemen by Alkarama, a Swiss-based human rights organization, and HOOD, an organization of Yemeni lawyers and activists, provides a window into the cruelty of the double-tap.
On May 15, 2012, Abdallah Saleh Hussein witnessed a missile attack on the home of 33-year-old Nawir Abdallah Al-‘Arshani that killed him and injured several others.
“After the first strike, I rushed to the scene with my son Muhammed, just like dozens of other people,” said Saleh Hussein. “We were trying to assist the victims when suddenly a second attack took place. I saw many bodies shredded.” About 15 minutes after the initial strike, an aircraft came back and fired several more strikes, killing 13 men and one woman and injuring dozens, including Saleh Hussein’s son. “My son was hit by bomb fragments in the stomach and neck. He died quickly.”
Fear of being killed in a secondary strike prevented onlookers from immediately assisting the wounded, causing one man to die from his injuries.
This death and destruction has long-lasting impacts on Yemenis. Al Jazeera described the long-term trauma of a U.S. drone strike that killed Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, 49, a Yemeni cleric and father of seven.Salem preached loudly against the type of extremism exhibited by Al Qaeda, which his family feared would invite violent retribution from Al Qaeda linked militants. But in the end, it was U.S. violence that ended Salem’s life.
Salem’s brother-in-law, Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, 54, recounted the drone strike that killed Salem last year and its aftermath:
“It was after the evening prayer and I was sitting on my balcony,” Faisal said, recalling that moment. “There was a light and then a big noise – I thought the mountains would fall.”
Four drone strikes in total, a few minutes apart, violently tore Salem, Walid and the three visitors to shreds. Amidst the pandemonium, villagers cowering inside the mosque ran out for safety between strikes, believing they would die inside.
“You cannot imagine what we found,” said Faisal, drawing a slow, deep breath as he described the nighttime chaos that followed. “We found body parts scattered everywhere. We tried to collect them all, and brought them to the mosque to wrap in white cloth.”
The repercussions were devastating. The villagers marched the next day, chanting: “Obama, why do you spill our blood?” But President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi met their pleas for answers with silence.
Salem’s mother died two weeks later apparently from shock. Faisal’s sister Hayat, the mother of Walid, refuses to leave her home, and said she is “waiting to join my son”. Faisal’s daughter Heba was so stricken with fear she didn’t leave her home for twenty days. She still needs psychiatric care.
“The people in the village are so afraid now,” Faisal sighed. “Everything has changed. They think they can be killed anywhere.”
But drone strikes don’t always miss their targets. But even when Al Qaeda-linked militants are killed, the surrounding community isn’t spared.
One such incident took place in Azzan, a city of 6,000 inhabitants, where militants have battled the government for control since 2011 (the region is rich and oil and gas but economically deprived). The U.S. military backed the Yemeni government offensive “with air raids and drone strikes, killing dozens of members of armed groups designated as ‘officers,’ as well as many civilians creating an exodus of thousands of inhabitants,” according to the Alkarama and HOOD report. So basically the U.S. was killing people on behalf of the Yemeni government in a conflict that had nothing to do with the U.S.
On March 30, 2012, a series of drone strikes in Azzan killed two members of Al Qaeda and a 60-year-old man walking close by. Five children playing near the strike zone were injured by shrapnel.
“I was sitting with my friends there, and we were going to play football, when suddenly we were shaken by the sound of a violent explosion. I looked in front of me and saw a car burning. A missile had struck it,” said 13-year-old Amin Ali Hassan Al-Wisabi. “Shrapnel hit me in my foot, but I didn’t feel any pain, and I ran towards the house with blood flowing from my injury. I saw the car burning beside me and one of my friends lost consciousness. Someone came with a car and took us to the hospital.”
Imagine how traumatic such an experience would be for a child to process. This is what we’re putting Yemeni children through regularly. Is it any wonder, then, that there are groups out there vowing revenge on America?
*On a side note, I realize it can be difficult for “Westerners” to empathize with poor brown people on the other side of the world whose names are difficult to pronounce, especially when they’re being demonized in the media. But please keep in mind that Yemenis are human beings who feel joy and pain just like you, they just happen to live in a part of the world that’s on the receiving end of U.S. imperialism.