Lawmakers demand review of Saudi bombings before massive arms sale

BuzzFeed reports: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding that the Trump administration provide a detailed account of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, including instances of potential war crimes, before approving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of precision-guided bombs, BuzzFeed News has learned.

The request, detailed in a letter signed by 31 members of the House of Representatives, could push the United States to disclose sensitive details about when and where the Saudi military ignored Washington’s instructions to avoid targets that resulted in civilian casualties.

Congress must “ensure that the [Royal Saudi Air Force] has the ability to avoid civilian casualties before the U.S. sells them any additional air-to-ground munitions,” said a draft of the letter addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The demand follows a decision by the State Department to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia as the Trump administration beefs up support for the Arab monarchy’s military campaign in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Why food insecurity ‘over there’ matters right here

Ivo Daalder writes: Earlier this year, one of the world’s leading authorities on famine declared that 70 million people across 45 countries would need food assistance this year. Already 20 million in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen face famine, an unprecedented situation that prompted the United Nations in March to declare the worst humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II.

This global calamity needs our immediate and full attention. Yet saving millions from starvation is not only a moral obligation, it is also a national security necessity. We know from past food-related crises that lack of adequate food tends to create cycles of instability. A decade ago, protests over food prices toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar. Popular grievances over food policy and prices also were a major driver of the Arab Spring and helped catalyze the instability and migration we see today across the Middle East and North Africa.

As the United States debates the appropriate balance of military, diplomatic, and economic levers at its disposal, the link between global food security and global stability has never been more clear, nor more urgent the need for U.S. leadership to confront and mitigate the risk of food insecurity. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. has launched 70 air strikes in Yemen in little over a month

The Hill reports: The Pentagon carried out roughly 20 strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda militants since last week, putting the total number of strikes past 70 in a little over a month, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday.

The strikes are aimed at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni al Qaeda branch that is considered the terrorist organization’s most lethal branch.

“We continue to target [al Qaeda] in Yemen, and this is done in the interest of disrupting this terror organization that presents a very significant threat to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.

The United States conducted multiple airstrikes in Yemen this past weekend, according to reports out of the area. Davis would not say specifically how many airstrikes took place, instead saying that there have been 20 additional strikes since the middle of last week.

“Since Feb. 28, we’ve conducted more than 70 precision airstrikes against AQAP militants’ infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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British police look at allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen

The Guardian reports: Scotland Yard is examining allegations of war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the Guardian can reveal, triggering a possible diplomatic row with Britain on the eve of Theresa May’s visit to the Arab state.

The Metropolitan police confirmed that their war crimes unit was assessing whether criminal prosecutions could be brought over Saudi Arabia’s devastating aerial campaign in Yemen.

The force’s SO15 counter-terrorism unit revealed to a London human rights lawyer that it had launched a “scoping exercise” into the claims before Maj Gen Ahmed al-Asiri’s visit to the capital last week.

The revelation comes as May plans to underline Britain’s close relationship with the Saudi royal family on her visit to the Arab state this week, in which tackling the terror threat from Islamic State will be a key factor. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. war footprint grows in Middle East, with no endgame in sight

The New York Times reports: The United States launched more airstrikes in Yemen this month than during all of last year. In Syria, it has airlifted local forces to front-line positions and has been accused of killing civilians in airstrikes. In Iraq, American troops and aircraft are central in supporting an urban offensive in Mosul, where airstrikes killed scores of people on March 17.

Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.

Rather than representing any formal new Trump doctrine on military action, however, American officials say that what is happening is a shift in military decision-making that began under President Barack Obama. On display are some of the first indications of how complicated military operations are continuing under a president who has vowed to make the military “fight to win.” [Continue reading…]

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Drought and war heighten threat of not just one famine, but four

The New York Times reports: First the trees dried up and cracked apart.

Then the goats keeled over.

Then the water in the village well began to disappear, turning cloudy, then red, then slime-green, but the villagers kept drinking it. That was all they had.

Now on a hot, flat, stony plateau outside Baidoa, thousands of people pack into destitute camps, many clutching their stomachs, some defecating in the open, others already dead from a cholera epidemic.

“Even if you can get food, there is no water,” said one mother, Sangabo Moalin, who held her head with a left hand as thin as a leaf and spoke of her body “burning.”

Another famine is about to tighten its grip on Somalia. And it’s not the only crisis that aid agencies are scrambling to address. For the first time since anyone can remember, there is a very real possibility of four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives.

International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. And they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One powerful lesson from the last famine in Somalia, just six years ago, was that famines were not simply about food. They are about something even more elemental: water.

Once again, a lack of clean water and proper hygiene is setting off an outbreak of killer diseases in displaced persons camps. So the race is on to dig more latrines, get swimming-pool quantities of clean water into the camps, and pass out more soap, more water-treatment tablets and more plastic buckets — decidedly low-tech supplies that could save many lives.

“We underestimated the role of water and its contribution to mortality in the last famine,” said Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist for Unicef. “It gets overshadowed by the food.”

The famines are coming as a drought sweeps across Africa and several different wars seal off extremely needy areas. United Nations officials say they need a huge infusion of cash to respond. So far, they are not just millions of dollars short, but billions.

At the same time, President Trump is urging Congress to cut foreign aid and assistance to the United Nations, which aid officials fear could multiply the deaths. The United States traditionally provides more disaster relief than anyone else.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, a large private aid group.

Aid officials say all the needed food and water exist on this planet in abundance — even within these hard-hit countries. But armed conflict that is often created by personal rivalries between a few men turns life upside down for millions, destroying markets and making the price of necessities go berserk. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration weighs deeper involvement in Yemen war

The Washington Post reports: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to senior Trump administration officials.

In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.

It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies. [Continue reading…]

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Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war

Reuters reports: Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement, stepping up support for its Shi’ite ally in a civil war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East, regional and Western sources say.

Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the impoverished state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula – part of the same regional power struggle that is fuelling the war in Syria.

Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, say that in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support. This mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Syria.

A senior Iranian official said Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force – the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – met top IRGC officials in Tehran last month to look at ways to “empower” the Houthis. [Continue reading…]

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UN seeks inquiry into deadly assault on migrant boat near Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations on Monday called for an inquiry into an aerial assault on a boat of migrants last week off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that left at least 42 people dead.

The attack on the boat, believed to be carrying 145 people leaving Yemen, was among the most horrific episodes of deadly violence on asylum seekers there since Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the country’s civil war and began an air campaign against the Houthi rebels two years ago.

The boat assault also illustrated the vibrant trade in people-smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a congregation point for tens of thousands of Africans fleeing their own countries.

Most of the passengers aboard the vessel were believed to be Somalis who had been staying in Yemen and were trying to reach Sudan.

United Nations officials have registered nearly 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen, mostly from Somalia. [Continue reading…]

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State Dept. approves renewal of arms sales to Saudis as they continue bombing famine-stricken Yemen

The Washington Post reports: The State Department has approved a resumption of weapons sales that critics have linked to Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilians in Yemen, a potential sign of reinvigorated U.S. support for the kingdom’s involvement in its neighbor’s ongoing civil war.

The proposal from the State Department would reverse a decision made late in the Obama administration to suspend the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh, which leads a mostly Arab coalition conducting airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure, which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.

It also signals a break with an approach the previous administration hoped would limit civilian deaths in a conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of widespread famine but that Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia has cast as a battle against the spread of Iranian influence across the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Much more to the story of the fallen Navy SEAL Trump praised in his speech to Congress

Yochi Dreazen writes: The simmering controversy over the raid flared up again on Tuesday when Trump broke with decades of presidential precedent and blamed the military for the failed operation — and for Owens’s death — rather than taking responsibility himself.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

As Phillip Carter wrote for Vox, most presidents of both parties have stepped up and accepted blame for failed military operations, regardless of whether they were their fault. Trump, Carter wrote, took a very different path:

Still, Trump’s blunt refusal to accept personal responsibility for the Yemen raid burns because it marks such an incredible betrayal of his office and the awesome responsibility that our president must shoulder, especially in the national security sphere. A president who passes the buck is not one we can trust to lead our military or keep us safe.

The president’s decision to lavish so much attention on Carryn Owens, meanwhile, sparked a torrent of angry responses on Twitter, with critics arguing that he was trying to use her grief for political gain. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Al Qaeda’s plot to blow up an American airliner

The New York Times reports: In a series of conversations in Qaeda safe houses in Yemen in 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki carefully sized up a young Nigerian volunteer, decided the man had the diligence and dedication for a “martyrdom mission” and finally unveiled what he had in mind.

Mr. Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had become a leading propagandist for Al Qaeda, told the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that “the attack should occur on board a U.S. airliner,” according to the account Mr. Abdulmutallab gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Abdulmutallab told F.B.I. agents that he “was resolved to killing innocent people and considered them to be ‘collateral damage.’” With “guidance” from Mr. Awlaki, he said, he had “worked through all these issues.”

Newly released documents, obtained by The New York Times after a two-year legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act, fill in the details of a central episode in the American conflict with Al Qaeda: Mr. Abdulmutallab’s recruitment by Mr. Awlaki and his failed attempt to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas in 2009 using sophisticated explosives hidden in his underwear.

The documents’ detailed account of Mr. Awlaki, who stars in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s story as both a religious hero and a practical adviser on carrying out mayhem, is particularly important. The government allegation that Mr. Awlaki was behind the underwear bomb plot — never tested in a court of law — became the central justification that President Barack Obama cited for ordering the cleric’s killing in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen deliberately killed on the order of a president, without criminal charges or trial, since the Civil War. Some legal scholars questioned whether the order was constitutional. Mr. Obama argued that killing Mr. Awlaki was the equivalent of a justified police shooting of a gunman who was threatening civilians.

The F.B.I.’s decision in 2010 to keep the interview summaries secret led some critics to question the quality of the evidence against Mr. Awlaki. The 200 pages of redacted documents released to The Times this week, on the order of a federal judge, suggest that the Obama administration had ample firsthand testimony from Mr. Abdulmutallab that the cleric oversaw his training and conceived the plot.

The detailed reports of Mr. Abdulmutallab may also play into the debate President Trump has renewed about whether torture is ever necessary to get useful information from terrorism suspects. Most experienced interrogators say no, and their arguments would receive support from these interviews. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen withdraws permission for U.S. antiterror ground missions

The New York Times reports: Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.

Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.

While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated on Tuesday — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.

It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his term. [Continue reading…]

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Eight-year-old American girl ‘killed in Yemen raid approved by Trump’

The Guardian reports: President Donald Trump personally approved a US commando raid in Yemen that left one elite serviceman dead and may have killed an eight-year-old American girl, the US military has told the Guardian.

At least 14 people died in Sunday’s raid by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry to determine if allegations of civilian deaths are sufficiently credible to merit a full investigation.

The operation was launched to gather intelligence on suspected operations by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), according to Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command. Planning for the raid “started months before”, under Barack Obama’s administration, but was “not previously approved”, he said.

Thomas said he did not know why the prior administration did not authorize the operation, but said the Obama administration had effectively exercised a “pocket veto” over it.

A former official said the operation had been reviewed several times, but the underlying intelligence was not judged strong enough to justify the risks, and the case was left to the incoming Trump administration to make its own judgment.

An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, according to her family. Nawar, also known as Nora, is the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015. [Continue reading…]

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UN officials: Yemen could face famine if no immediate action

The Associated Press reports: U.N. officials warned Thursday that the escalating conflict in Yemen has left two-thirds of the population in need of humanitarian aid and the country could face famine this year unless immediate action is taken.

U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council that the “dangerous” upsurge in airstrikes and fighting is having “tragic consequences for the Yemeni people,” with 18.2 million in need of emergency food.

U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned that “an astounding 10.3 million Yemenis … require immediate assistance to save or sustain their lives” — and “at least two million people need emergency food assistance to survive.”

“The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world,” O’Brien said. “If there is no immediate action, famine is now a possible scenario for 2017.” [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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