Q. Why are US drones strikes taking place in Yemen?
Since the events of 11th September 2001, the Unites States has viewed Yemen as a key battlefield in its war on Al-Qaeda affiliated militants. The Yemeni government, first under former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and now under his successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, has proven willing to co-operate in the American “war on terror”, paving the way for the US to breach their country’s sovereignty.
Q. When was the first drone strike in Yemen?
In November 2002, exactly a year on from President Saleh’s trip to Washington to sign a deal with George W. Bush affirming Yemen’s co-operation with the US. Six suspected militants were killed, and a dangerous precedent was set: since no war had been declared, the killings were tantamount to an extrajudicial executions.
Q. So the blame for the US drone war lies with the Bush administration?
Hardly. The 2002 strike was the only drone attack in Yemen authorised during Bush’s presidency. Drones only became the weapon of choice for the US after President Obama took office in 2009.
Q. How many drone strikes has Obama authorised?
Official statistics are hard to come by, but Obama has authorised at least 50 strikes, according to the most conservative estimate. But the likely figure is much higher – perhaps as many as 160.
Q. But these strikes only kill terrorists, right?
Wrong. Since 2009, more than a hundred innocent Yemeni civilians have been executed without any judicial process. And even those who are classed as “militants” often have only a tenuous link to al-Qaeda, thanks to the Obama administration’s redefinition of the term “civilian”.
Q. So drones aren’t exactly accurate weapons?
Correct. Though President Hadi has referred to drone strikes as “precise military missions” that have “zero margin of error” – echoing CIA Director John Brennan’s description of the strikes’ “astonishing precision” – both statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that this is far from the case. Even Gerald Feierstein, US Ambassador to Yemen since 2010 and a staunch advocate of drones, has admitted the fallibility of the weapon.
Yet even if drones were as accurate as some have claimed, it would not change their essential immorality and illegality.
Q. Do these strikes take place in a particular area of Yemen?
Unlike in Pakistan, where US drone strikes have largely been confined to Waziristan, strikes in Yemen have not focused on any one region. While the majority of drone strikes have taken place in the provinces of Marib, Abyan, Shabwa and Hadramout, strikes have been recorded in nearly half of the country’s 18 provinces in 2013 alone.
As such, drone strikes in Yemen are overwhelmingly a national issue, not just a regional one. Given the wide scope and escalation of strikes, in 2013 Yemen overtook Pakistan as the chief victim of US drone strikes, in a country on which it has not declared war.
Q. How do drone strikes affect ordinary Yemenis?
Testimonies of Yemenis directly affected by US drones demonstrate the destructive consequences of this weapon on the lives of the innocent.
In August 2012, a US drone strike killed Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a local imam and teacher who had preached against Al-Qaeda, as well as his young nephew, Walid. As a prominent opposition figure to Al-Qaeda surely the US government should have courted Salem? Instead Salem and Walid were targeted for death by drone, an act which has caused incredulous resentment towards the United States. Reprieve client and Salem’s brother-in-law, Faisal ben Ali Jabar, continues to seek justice on behalf of the bereaved family.
Salem and Walid are by no means the only innocent casualties of the United States’ drone war in Yemen. In September 2012, for example, a strike in the town of Radaa in Al Bayda provincereportedly killed up to 12 people, sparking anti-government protests in the country.
Q. Do drones cause any psychological damage?
The devastating impact of drones on ordinary Yemenis cannot be measured by the number of civilian deaths alone. The psychological effect of drone strikes and drones that hover over the civilian population have been extraordinarily harmful.
In September 2012, Living Under Drones, a report jointly conducted by Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law, established that the threat of drones was traumatising civilians in Waziristan, and leading to psychological disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In March 2013, clinical psychologist Peter Schaapveld told British MPs how drones had caused a “psychological emergency” in the country, and spoke of the traumatic effect of drones on children in particular. Of those he spoke to during his trip to Aden, Shaapveld found that 99% were suffering from some kind of psychological disorder, while 71% were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Schaapveld’s findings were supported by a report conducted by Reprieve’s Katie Taylor for the Child Rights International Network that assessed the damage done by drones to the young.
Q. So children are affected as well?
Absolutely. As if to prove the point, in October 2011 US citizen Abdurrahman al-Awlaki, a sixteen year old child and son of AQAP-affiliated cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a US drone just a fortnight after his father had died in the same manner.
Q. What do Yemenis say about the effect of drones?
Perhaps the most profound personal testimony of the psychological impact of drones comes from Farea al-Muslimi, a young US-educated activist and writer from the mountain village of Wessab in Damar Province. In April 2013 he told the US senate how thousands of innocent people from his village had been left terrified after a drone strike that killed five people. Farea stressed the psychological impact of the threat of drones more than anything else, writing of how “the ominous buzz of the drones terrorizes communities.” He also spoke of how drone strikes were turning Yemenis against the US.
Q. Are there any other negative consequences?
As a result of drones hovering overhead, many have felt compelled to leave their homes: in 2011, Ahmad Khulani, the head of an observation committee formed to help evacuate citizens most at risk, reported that as many as 40,000 people had migrated from Abyan Province in the south of the country because of the threat of drones. The social and economic impact of this displacement, though difficult to measure, is undoubtedly huge.
Q. What is Reprieve doing about it?
Drones threaten and destroy innocent lives, make a mockery of the rule of law, encourage hatred of the United States and support for al-Qaeda. They also significantly hamper Yemen’s development.
Reprieve is working to raise awareness of the damage wrought by the US drone war on the Yemeni people and to bring justice to the victims of their unlawful and arbitrary use.