On this week’s epsode of Unauthorized Disclosure, Kevin Gosztola and I spoke with Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni American activist who co-founded the Support Yemen media collective based in Sanaa. (You can download the episode here or subscribe for free on iTunes here.)
Last week, US media outlets reported that upwards of 55 Al Qaeda militants in Yemen were killed in US air strikes, echoing the unverified claims of unnamed Yemeni officials. But, “What you’re not hearing,” said Rooj, “are the names of people who were killed.” And if the past is any indication (like drone bombing weddings and the massacre in al-Majala), it’s likely that many of those killed were civilians.
We’re also not hearing about the blowback from these strikes in the form of kidnappings and assassinations of Yemeni officials by militants, a cycle of violence that has “forced [Yemeni civilians] to live in between the terrorism of the state and the terrorism of al Qaeda,” said Rooj.
Still, most of the violence against civilians is coming from the targeted killings carried out by the US and backed by the Yemeni government. As a result, “People are too afraid to leave their homes, too afraid to go to schools, too afraid to visit each other, too afraid to even go to a funeral because they don’t know when a drone is going to strike,” explained Rooj.
On top of terrorizing people on the ground, drone strikes are pushing those impacted into the arms of al Qaeda. So in essence, US policy is creating the very terrorists it claims to be fighting.
“Many folks I spoke to actually said if the US is actually interested in countering al Qaeda then they would be building schools. They would be building hospitals. Look around. We have absolutely nothing,” said Rooj. “But I don’t think the US is interested in countering al Qaeda. I think this is something they want to keep doing to justify their presence in the Middle East.”
In the discussion portion of the show, Kevin and I talk about Kwadir Felton, the Alabama prisoner strike against slave labor and the FBI placing American Muslims on the no-fly list for refusing to become informants.
Below is the transcript of our interview with Rooj, who you can follow on Twitter at @Rooj129.
RANIA KHALEK, Dispatches from the Underclass: Why don’t you give us an overview of what you’re hearing on your end because our officials, the US government officials, aren’t saying anything and they are actually referring journalists to Yemeni officials, So what’s going on over there?
ROOJ ALWAZIR: Actually, unfortunately, our government is saying pretty much what the US government wants to hear, which is that 55 militants were killed over the weekend in southern province of Yemen. What you’re not hearing is that included in these 55 are civilians. What you’re not hearing are the names of people who were killed. The Ministry of Interior in particular has come out and claimed that the strike in al Bayda, south of the Yemeni capital, killed ten militants and he actually for the first time acknowledged three civilians were killed. In al Marib and al Shabwah they claimed that over 23-30 militants were killed. When asked who they were, when asked who their names were and if any investigations have happened, they don’t comment. They’re still saying that they are doing DNA tests and etc.
What’s interesting about these particular air strikes that happened over the weekend is that this is the first time that we actually saw special operations on the ground, meaning when air strikes had happened in the past in Yemen air strikes are usually just laying there. No investigations are happening ever. This is the first time where the military came after the air strikes and picked up the dead bodies. So this is what’s really getting us activists and journalists, etc, people we question what happened this time around.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Can you talk about the cycle of violence in the country because here in the US what is being covered by I’ll say for example CNN is that there were these attacks but we’re not hearing about the fact that there are kidnappings and assassinations of Yemeni officials in response to this violence from the US and Yemeni governments?
ALWAZIR: This has been ongoing for a long time. The Yemeni government is trying to combat terrorism by allowing US drone strikes in Yemen and the response by al Qaeda and other militant groups has been to strike back with military assassinations, targeting specifically the military. They’ve been really strategic at who they kill. They’ve been able to win the hearts and minds of large amounts of communities all around Yemen by not targeting civilians. By saying, look the US is killing innocent people. They’re killing your families, not even acknowledging you. We’re here to have your back, and we’re here to [inaudible] those that are responsible for those attacks.
This is what you’re seeing all over Yemen, not just in the south, but drone strikes supposedly targeting al Qaeda but obviously entire populations, entire civilian populations and then in Sanaa lots and lots of military assassinations.
What we’re seeing in Yemen and all over Yemen, not just the south. The south is usually the area most targeted by drone strikes—is lots of military assassinations backed by al Qaeda. Immediately after assassinations take place … this is in response
What we’re seeing in Yemen is entire populations forced to live under fear, forced to live in between the terrorism of the state and the terrorism of al Qaeda.
KHALEK: Do you have a sense that there’s growing sympathy for al Qaeda because of the US and Yemen governments teaming up together for these strikes?
ALWAZIR: Absolutely. What happens when drone strikes occur is usually they kill lots of innocent civilians and when that happens Yemen government has not come out once and apologized and compensated. So al Qaeda comes immediately after and says, hey, listen, this is what the Yemeni government. This is what the US government has done to your child. We’re here to help you out and get you the revenge that you’re looking for.
Out of despair, they end up wanting to join al Qaeda, not because of ideology but because they feel hopeless. They feel like this is a government that does not even acknowledge their existence, not acknowledge the deaths in their families. Why not join a group that’s willing to give them the revenge they’re looking for?
KHALEK: Also, Kevin mentioned before that this is like a war that seems to be happening between the Yemeni government and militants on the ground and it’s not necessarily always about this al Qaeda ideology. There’s also other stuff happening too. In the past it’s been certain separatist movements, like in certain areas that want to take over, that want to be in charge of various parts of Yemen, have been fighting with the Yemeni government. And then the US drone strikes end up being involved and in the middle of that.
ALWAZIR: If you look at who joins al Qaeda, a lot of low-value targets—if that’s what you want to call them—are people with real local grievances. They’re grievances against the Yemeni government. They were imprisoned for many years for absolutely reason. They are living in an area severely impoverished that’s been ignored by the state. And so they join this group not because they have a specific agenda against the United States but they have a grievances against the Yemeni government and they feel as if the only way for them to get what they want or they need is to join this group that is capable of getting their voices heard.
GOSZTOLA: I know that there was a process—the National Dialogue—that people in Yemen had some high hopes for, but it seems to have collapsed as far as I can tell having followed the issue. How has this contributed to the power vacuum and then the violence that is happening in Yemen?
ALWAZIR: The National Dialogue has always been fairly disconnected from what is actually happening on the ground. The left loves to see this as such a great model. The Yemenis are coming together for the first time. They’re talking, etc, but actually if you look at our history in 1994 we came together with different people with different grievances. They all came together before. This isn’t anything new. But the left wants to look at it as something new and take credit for it. But what’s really happening on the ground is something that’s very far removed from what people are talking about in the National Dialogue. What people are looking for is food, water, employment, basic needs that are being ignored while the National Dialogue talks about good governance, human rights. People can’t even speak to because their basic needs aren’t being met.
KHALEK: I wanted to ask what you’re hearing over there about Saudi Arabia’s involvement. In one report—a couple reports, but one in particular—from CNN, it was like an anonymous source from Yemen, which it always seems to be. They were quoting. There was almost this acknowledgment that it’s not just the US and Yemen that has been involved in this particular set of strikes but there was possibly Saudi Arabia being involved. Have you heard that?
ALWAZIR: Yeah, and that’s not anything new actually. In 2012, when the war in Abyan happened, and again al Qaeda seized to main cities in the south, and that’s when the US and Yemeni drone program really started to increase. But before the drone program, the US and Saudi missiles were involved. And so this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen in the US and the Yemeni counterterrorism [inaudible].
KHALEK: I wanted to ask you more about the people on the ground in particular. This really has a big psychological impact on people. It’s really traumatic with the helicopters and drones in the air. I don’t know exactly where you are in Yemen right now, but have you been around when drones are flying around? Have you seen them? And just when drones are flying around, not when they’re striking, what’s the psychological impact on the people on the ground?
ALWAZIR: I’m very fortunate that I live in the capital (Sanaa), and because of that I don’t experience the drones. But I’m gone to areas like Marib and Bayda where people are forced to live under a constant buzzing noise. I don’t even have words to describe the feeling, honestly. It’s scary. It’s annoying. And most important the kids have no idea. [inaudible]
What it does in the long term is create this fear with kids because—So, this one kid, an eight year-old boy, was climbing a tree. He was playing this game of who can find the drone first and they were all climbing the trees. And one boy finally found it and that’s when the strike happened. Ever since then, he tells me I can’t sleep at night because all I can see our drones in my brain because I used to play with it all the time. And I didn’t know that was going to kill my uncle.
Things that he thought were playful and fun, now he associates with murder. This is just one example. Another lady I spoke to, a mother who lost her son, [inaudible] in December, said that I’m lucky to survive, but I end up wearing wounds that people can’t see. And it’s true because we’re so focused on the deaths that we don’t really focus on the mental toll it takes on families. On not just losing loved ones, but what it is like to be living under that constant buzzing noise? People are too afraid to leave their homes, too afraid to go to schools, too afraid to visit each other, too afraid to even go to a funeral because they don’t know when a drone is going to strike.
First they thought it was a playful thing, and they said we get it’s surveilling our families and we’re against it. But whatever we just ignored it. But when it started killing our families for absolutely no reason and Yemeni government hasn’t come and even apologized now don’t blame me if I want to join Satan as an example of why he would want to join al Qaeda.
I thought that was really very powerful because it was true. The biggest thing is the fact that the Yemeni government and US government refuse to acknowledge the impact it has on the ground. I mean, these are [lots of examples]. A strike in al Bayda, when a Yemeni official said, oh, it’s unfortunate that a civilian was there at the wrong time. This is the mentality that we have. That we should just be at home and not go on with our lives because we’re kind of like [inaudible]. We’re so far removed from it.
GOSZTOLA: How do Yemenis react to the fact that the US government has such a great presence in their country? US officials claim that this is about bringing security and more safety and going after these dangerous groups in Yemen, but how do they react to that? Are they revolted by this fact that they are trying to help? How do they view the counterterrorism aid that is being given to President Hadi’s government? Do they see it as fueling more corruption?
ALWAZIR: I’ll tell you something that Mohammed al Qawli who lost his brother to a drone strike in January 2013 told me. He gave me parts of the missiles that killed his brother. This is the humanitarian aid. This is the military aid that we get from the US government. This is what democracy and human rights is all about, as he shows me remnants of a Hellfire missile. So really there is this knowledge of what the US doing, and a lot of families, especially those who have lost loved ones, are active now in drone resistance.
The families are going to other families and sharing their stories. The first Yemeni anti-drone organization was formed last month in hopes to counter and resist the US drone program in Yemen. There is this awareness of what the impact drones are actually having on the program. Many folks I spoke to actually said if the US is actually interested in countering al Qaeda then they would be building schools. They would be building hospitals. Look around. We have absolutely nothing. But I don’t think the US is interested in countering al Qaeda. I think this is something they want to keep doing to justify their presence in the Middle East.
GOSZTOLA: And what’s the threat to journalists and activists who actually do go out and investigate what is happening on the ground in the aftermath of these operations?
ALWAZIR: There’s a huge threat. I mean, just now we just saw four tribesmen get killed by an air strike as soon as they went to go investigate what happened over the weekend. There is threats by both the Yemeni government but also by al Qaeda who could use it as an example to say, you know, either kidnapping or killing and turning everything on the Yemeni or US government. And because of that unfortunately we don’t hear what’s really happening on the ground because these families are so far removed from the city because it’s happened in very rural areas we don’t really know what’s happening. Journalists and activists are afraid to go because of what the Yemeni government has done in the past and because of what al Qaeda could do.