At war from a distance

April 24, 2014

Nicole Colson reports on new casualties in the Obama administration’s drone war.

THE OBAMA administration killed dozens of people last week—but you probably didn’t hear much about it in the mainstream media.

Days of punishing drone attacks left at least 15 dead or wounded on April 19, 55 dead on April 20, and at least three dead on April 21. According to Yemen’s Interior Ministry and the Obama administration, most of those killed were “militants”—but officials acknowledged that at least three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday. (However, a different official put the number of dead civilians in the Saturday attack even higher.) In fact, Yemen officials hadn’t identified all those killed when they wrote off the majority of the dead as “militants.”

As Common Dreams noted, “The discrepancy in the early reporting does nothing to erase the fact that none of those killed in the bombing were given the opportunity to defend themselves or declare their innocence before being obliterated by what is assumed to be a U.S. Air Force drone operator controlling the aircraft from thousands of miles away.”

Aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in Yemen
Aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in Yemen

According to the New York Times, the three days of drone strikes were the “the largest barrage of air strikes carried out in Yemen this year--11 in all so far, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes--and one of the largest strikes carried out since President Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan.”

In that speech, Obama not only promised that such drone strike would only be used against those who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” but that they would only be carried out if there was “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

But the attack on the so-called militants on Saturday took place on one of the main roads in southern Yemen. In addition to blowing up two vehicles with suspected al-Qaeda members, the drone strike hit a truck of passersby travelling along the same road. In other words, this was hardly a site at which no civilians were likely to be killed or injured.

Also problematic is the U.S. media’s blind faith in Pentagon news releases declaring the bulk of those killed were members of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups—as well as what the New York Times admitted in its coverage: “Given that the administration would not even confirm that American drones carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans.”

The ramping up of the drone war in Yemen has continued during Obama’s time in office. With just one exception, every drone strike carried out in Yemen by the U.S. has been carried out during by the Obama administration.

So far, the Obama administration has used drones in Yemen at least 92 times and cruise missiles and other forms of weaponry at least 15 times. An estimated 753 to 965 people have been killed in these strikes in Yemen, at least 81 of them civilians, according to the official count. In December, a U.S. drone strike that targeted a wedding convoy killed between 11 and 15 civilians.

As national security analyst Peter Bergen wrote for CNN, “Such strikes do not target known militants but rather people who are displaying the behaviors of suspected militants.” As a consequence, Bergen writes, the attacks fuel anger and resentment toward the U.S.

One year ago, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing into the legal issues surrounding the drone war, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist who had attended high school in the U.S., was one of the witnesses. As Bergen wrote:

Al-Muslimi told the committee that a drone strike had targeted his village of Wessab just six days earlier. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village,” al-Muslimi told the senators, “one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

THE OBAMA administration has been able to bomb seemingly at will in Yemen in large part because of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s support for U.S. operations.

Hadi told the Washington Post in 2012 that he personally approves each U.S. drone strike in Yemen. “Every operation, before taking place, they take permission from the president,” Hadi said, adding that he had no concerns about drones failing in hitting their targets. “The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain.”

Hadi became president in 2012, after a popular movement pushed President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power after 33 years. Since taking over, Hadi, who had been Saleh’s vice president, has been courted as a key ally in the U.S. “war on terror,” with the Obama administration paying special attention to his approval of U.S. bombings of Southern Yemen in particular, where al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate reportedly has a base of operations.

But as Kevin Gosztola wrote in an article that appeared at the Firedoglake website, these latest attacks were not solely U.S. operations, but included the participation of the Yemeni Army’s Counter-Terrorism Unit. Gosztola pointed to an article by Ryan Goodman of Just Security, which makes the case that these ongoing drone strikes and raids may have been targeting not “al-Qaeda militants” who posed an imminent threat to the United States, but opponents of Hadi:

First, according to Yemeni officials, recent actions were in response to a threat to civilian and military installations at least in Bayda province…The statement by the state news agency also added that the militants killed in the strike were responsible for the assassination of Bayda’s deputy governor on April 15. Those sound more like fighting an insurgency rather than fighting [al-Qaeda in Yemen's] direct threat to the United States. Second, the strikes were described as a joint U.S.-Yemen operation by the Yemeni official who spoke to CNN. And he explained that Yemeni troops would have faced heavy losses if they had attempted a ground assault themselves.

In January 2010, a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that then-President Saleh had assured then-CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus at a meeting that the Yemeni government would cover up U.S. attacks in Yemen and say that “the bombs are ours, not yours.” Doing so not only enabled the Obama administration to downplay the severity of its drone war in Yemen, but allowed Saleh to assert his own authority domestically.

Today, the same dynamic is at play—U.S. officials understate their role in the latest attacks, allowing Hadi “to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations,” according to the New York Times.

Hadi, in other words, may be cementing his own power by directing the U.S. where to attack within the poorest country in the Arab world.

THE OBAMA administration’s operations in Yemen most famously included the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and radical cleric, in a drone strike in 2011. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen, and Abdulrahman’s 17-year-old cousin were killed as a result of another drone strike.

The Obama administration has repeatedly declared that it had the legal right to kill al-Awlaki, despite the fact that he was never brought to trial. That assertion—that the U.S. government can remotely kill a U.S. citizen anywhere around the globe as long as it is deemed necessary as part of the “war on terror”—is perhaps the most outrageous and dangerous presidential declaration of authority since the “war on terror” first began.

On April 21, however, a federal appeals court in New York overturned a lower court decision and ordered the release of key portions of the classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted assassination of al-Awlaki--something the Obama administration has fought to keep secret.

The panel of judges decided that the Obama administration has lost the right to keep that justification private given the number of “public statements of public officials at the highest levels.” (However, details about the actual operation to kill al-Awlaki will remain secret, the court decided.)

As Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained:

This is a resounding rejection of the government’s effort to use secrecy and selective disclosure as a means of manipulating public opinion about the targeted killing program. The government can’t pretend that everything about its targeted killing program is a classified secret while senior officials selectively disclose information meant to paint the program in the most favorable light. The public has a right to know why the administration believes it can carry out targeted killings of American citizens who are located far away from any conventional battlefield.

Further Reading

From the archives