In Yemen, as drones track targets, Twitter tracks drones

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: Though the hour was late, Yemen’s social media was still very much awake.

A US drone’s missiles had just slammed into a convoy of vehicles in a remote part of Yemen, killing three alleged militants.

The attack – like all other US drone strikes outside warzones – was supposed to be clandestine. Yet within minutes Sanaa-based lawyer Haykal Bafana was reporting the strike in almost-realtime. Just after 1am on May 17 he posted the following on Twitter:

As Bafana later explained to the Bureau, his relatives live in Shibam, a town of 30,000. ‘When the drone struck, the town – which was then experiencing a power cut – had completely lit up. My relatives got straight on the phone to tell me about the attack.’

The day prior to the strike Bafana had already tweeted that drones were behaving suspiciously in the area. Hadhramaut province, a sparsely-populated former sultanate, is far from Yemen’s troubled south, where most of the fighting and US drone strikes are currently taking place.

There has been militant activity there for some years, report locals, and surveillance drones have been active at night since 2010. But until now there had never been a drone strike. ‘But suddenly four or five days ago, my relatives were reporting drones over them in daylight, all the time, which was rare. Militants were also being seen moving about in the area, maybe preparing the way for an evacuation from the fighting in the south. Everyone was expecting something to happen’, Bafana recalls. He tweeted the news to his followers.

When the deadly attack finally came in the early hours of Thursday morning, the target itself was hardly a secret.

Earlier, Arabic-language online media in the provincial capital of al-Mukalla had reported that a convoy of alleged al Qaeda rebels was heading north. That news was also swiftly tweeted.

Others were clearly also charting the convoy’s progress. As the vehicles approached Shibam at around 1am local time, at least one car, a Toyota Hilax, was destroyed by missiles from above. Yemen’s own air force has neither the know-how nor the equipment to launch a precision strike on moving vehicles in the dark.

News agencies would later report the attack as a drone strike, naming two of the dead as Zeid bin Taleb and Mutii Bilalafi, both described as local al Qaeda leaders. Like the dozens of US drone strikes in Yemen that preceded it, Thursday’s attack was supposed to be secret. Yet Twitter and other social media were tracking in near-real time the events surrounding the operation. [Continue reading…]

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