Yemen drone strike may violate Obama policy

f13-iconHuman Rights Watch: A deadly US drone strike on a December 2013 wedding procession in Yemen raises serious concerns about US forces’ compliance with President Barack Obama’s targeted killing policy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 28-page report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen,” calls on the US government to investigate the strike, publish its findings, and act in the event of wrongdoing. The December 12 attack killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride. US and Yemeni officials said the dead were members of the armed group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch the casualties were civilians. Obama said in a major address in May that US policy requires “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed in targeted attacks.

“The US refusal to explain a deadly attack on a marriage procession raises critical questions about the administration’s compliance with its own targeted killing policy,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “All Yemenis, especially the families of the dead and wounded, deserve to know why this wedding procession became a funeral.” [Continue reading...]

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The CIA, not the Pentagon, will continue running Obama’s drone war

Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris write: In May, the White House leaked word that it would start shifting drone operations from the shadows of the CIA to the relative sunlight of the Defense Department in an effort to be more transparent about the controversial targeted killing program. But six months later, the so-called migration of those operations has stalled, and it is now unlikely to happen anytime soon, Foreign Policy has learned.

The anonymous series of announcements coincided with remarks President Obama made on counterterrorism policy at National Defense University in which he called for “transparency and debate on this issue.” A classified Presidential Policy Guidance on the matter, issued at the same time, caught some in government by surprise, triggering a scramble at the Pentagon and at CIA to achieve a White House objective. The transfer was never expected to happen overnight. But it is now clear the complexity of the issue, the distinct operational and cultural differences between the Pentagon and CIA and the bureaucratic politics of it all has forced officials on all sides to recognize transferring drone operations from the Agency to the Defense Department represents, for now, an unattainable goal.

“The physics of making this happen quickly are remarkably difficult,” one U.S. official told FP. “The goal remains the same, but the reality has set in.” [Continue reading...]

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Barack Obama: Suspected war criminal

Shuaib Almosawa writes: Arfag al-Marwani finished his last minute shopping for the Eid al Fitr holiday by midnight, just enough time to enjoy a few hours of rest before the holiday’s dawn Fajr prayers. A 28-year-old laborer, Arfag had recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia and planned on spending the time with his family. It was August 8.

Just before making his final holiday preparations, he received a troubling phone call. Before the holiday celebrations could begin, he would have to carry out one final task.

There had been some sort of car accident involving his brothers: 24-year-old Abdullah, 17-year-old Hassan and 16-year-old Hussein. They too were on their way to the family home after finishing some last minute Eid shopping. Arfag’s thoughts drifted to news reports of the seven U.S. drone strikes in the past 11 days — one of which already targeted al Qaeda suspects in his home province of Marib. Arfag hoped that his young brothers weren’t somehow caught in the drone crossfire.

It took Arfag half an hour to reach the wreckage. Amidst the eerie quiet of the Maribi countryside, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of his brothers’ mangled vehicle.

The strike that killed Arfag’s three brothers was the eighth out of nine total air attacks launched between July 27 and August 10. It was part of a spastic attempt to thwart what U.S. officials claimed was an al Qaeda plot to attack American interests. But the drone campaign may have only created more support for the militants, if Arfag and his grieving family are to be believed.

Government officials told the press that the strike’s targets were all al Qaeda militants. But the victims’ families say just the opposite was true: that the two teenagers and their older brother were innocent bystanders.

“Everything inside the car seemed to have been flung out of the windows by the force of the blast,” said Arfag, describing what he found at the wreckage that night.

“I found their bodies lying nearby — decapitated.”

Arfag carried the bodies of Abdullah, Hassan and Hussein to the trunk of his car one by one along with what remained of Eid gifts his brothers’ had purchased just a few hours earlier.

“They purchased two outfits for their little nieces, deserts, and a lot of fireworks. We all enjoy the Eid fireworks — they weren’t just for the boys,” said Arfag.

Arfag notified the rest of his family before he began the 50 mile drive north where the family would prepare the bodies for burial in a nearby cemetery the following day.

“Mom took pictures with her mobile phone of all of them, along with the [charred] gifts they had bought,” Arfag continued.

The August 8 strike has outraged the residents of Marib, a governorate where al Qaeda maintains a strong presence. According to some security analysts, that outrage over drone strikes directed toward the U.S. may do more harm than good in a long term struggle against AQAP, as the local Qaeda affiliate is known.

“This case gets at what I believe to be the Achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: a lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and American’s War in Arabia. [Continue reading...]

Jeffrey Bachman asks: Is President Obama a suspected war criminal?

If you have read the recent reports on drone strikes by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is only one answer to this question … and it is not the answer most would want to hear.

If you have not read the reports, let me provide you with a brief summary of the common themes. The reports repeatedly criticized President Obama for what has been a near complete lack of transparency. Lack of transparency, according to the reports, impedes accountability. By failing to acknowledge responsibility for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, there can be no accountability to those who have wrongfully had their innocent loved ones killed in attacks.

Frank La Rue, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted the role the right to information plays in promoting good governance. La Rue added that there exists a right to know the truth because the truth enables access to other rights: in this case, the right to reparations and accountability for the wrongful deaths of loved ones. [Continue reading...]

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In Yemen, drones aren’t a policy

Nabeel Khoury writes: I recall the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty much enjoyed the run of the country, except for the northern region of Saada, which the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh denied us permission to visit due to the then ongoing war there. To be sure, coordination with local authorities were required, but I was able to obtain permission to go hiking in the gorgeous mountain regions around and south of Sanaa. On occasion, I was also able to travel unescorted to remote villages and actually spend the weekend. On one occasion, driving with a British friend in my personal vehicle, we stopped at an odd looking little place just off the road with a sign that said “Youth Sports Club.” On the first floor (literally) all conceivable brands of alcohol; on the second floor, all conceivable types of weapons. The shopkeeper quipped, “If you don’t see it, ask me; I’ll know where to get it for you!”

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly existed then, although it had not yet acquired the name and notoriety that it now enjoys. It was a rare occasion, in those days, that U.S. forces or equipment were needed to directly go after an AQ operative.

So what happened, between 2007 when I left Yemen and 2013? The United States sent back home a few Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, the Iraq war ended and Yemeni foreign fighters returned home, and Osama Ben Laden was killed. Meanwhile the U.S. policy of using drones to track and kill AQAP elements went into full gear.

If we assess U.S. policy in Yemen from a security standpoint first, we would have to conclude that it has certainly not brought more security to the American diplomats in Yemen. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them. Further, diplomats who, until recently, tended to live on the economy, in villas and apartment buildings in the middle of downtown Sanaa, were first moved to a well guarded hotel near the Embassy compound in 2011, and consequently into crowded quarters on the compound itself. American diplomats wishing to go outside embassy walls to meet with Yemenis, now have to have heavy security escorts and are discouraged from all but essential meetings impossible to conduct on the compound itself. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s secret war in Yemen

Ryan Goodman writes: No act of government calls for greater debate and deliberation than the decision to commit the country to war. The recent civil war in Syria sparked a national conversation in the United States about the direction of American foreign policy, and rightly so. But Syria was not the only civil war preoccupying the administration. While orchestrating the drawdown in Afghanistan and openly contemplating intervening in Syria, the president appears to have secretly inserted the United States in Yemen’s civil war.

Today, US forces conduct operations alongside the Yemeni army as it battles a domestic insurgency. The troubling details of some of those operations were revealed Tuesday, in a major report by Human Rights Watch on the scope of US military strikes in Yemen. The picture that emerges is grim: the president is waging a secret war in Yemen, and it’s time for him to come clean.

Administration officials have long assured the public that America’s involvement in Yemen was extremely circumscribed, and for good reason. According to a leading account of the inner workings of the administration, the president was resolute in targeting members of al-Qaida’s affiliate group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a decision that his lawyers concluded Congress had clearly authorized following 11 September 2001.

But expanding the target set to include AQAP’s rebel forces threatening the Yemeni government was a wholly different matter.

The State Department reportedly expressed reservations about pursuing such a course in June 2011. And in May 2012, the National Security Council spokesperson publicly affirmed:

We’re pursuing a focused counter-terrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten US interests at home and abroad … We have not, and will not, get involved in a broader counter-insurgency effort. That would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people.

In August 2012, John Brennan, then the White House counter-terrorism tsar, assured an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that although the US would continue to aid and build Yemen’s counter-insurgency capacity, “we’re not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or lethal action as part of that insurgency.”

Tuesday’s report by Human Rights Watch calls those claims into question. [Continue reading...]

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Caught between a drone on one side and al Qaeda on the other

A 97-page report produced by Human Rights Watch examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.

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Yemenis call U.S. drone strikes an overreaction to al Qaida threat

McClatchy reports: The United States’ launching of eight drone strikes in Yemen in the span of 13 days has ignited widespread outrage in the country.

The anger over the strikes, which came as an al Qaida-related threat shuttered U.S. embassies and consulates in Yemen and 15 other countries, has overwhelmed attention to the threat itself, which many here view skeptically anyway.

“In the end, I think the American reaction has been far more than has been reasonable,” said Abdulghani al Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst. “It comes off almost as a show of strength. But, ultimately, it may end up backfiring, as al Qaida is getting more attention now than they would have even if they carried out an attack.” [Continue reading...]

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Building a Yemeni state while losing a nation

Silvana Toska writes: During his recent visit to the United States, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed his concerns that if the National Dialogue — a forum supposedly representing the major political players in Yemen — fails, Yemen could slide into a civil war that will be worse than those in Somalia or Afghanistan. Part of this rhetoric was strategic, intended to nudge the so-called “Friends of Yemen” to commit to much needed (although potentially pernicious) aid. Nevertheless, Hadi is only slightly exaggerating the dangers Yemen could face, and recent developments — such as the delay of the National Dialogue — make his predictions more worrisome.

Hadi, who ran unopposed in February, was elected after a prolonged stalemate since January 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-engineered compromise that ensured the transfer of power from then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Hadi helped avert the civil war that Yemen was dangerously skirting at that time. Many groups in Yemen, however, view the GCC deal as a failure and an imposition that ensured that formal and informal power remain in the hands of old elites. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) reports, Yemeni elites have kept their hold on power as they continue to play musical chairs with government positions. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels in the North, the Hiraaki separatists in the South, as well as various youth groups who were the backbone of the early days of the revolution, are left out of the deal. [Continue reading...]

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4 protesters reportedly slain in clashes at U.S. embassy in Yemen

The Los Angeles Times reports: Hundreds of Yemeni protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sana and started fires on Thursday, another eruption of violence in a series of protests sweeping the Middle East and elsewhere over an online trailer for a film mocking the Islamic prophet.

Four protesters were killed and more than 30 were injured, some of them severely, after security forces fired gunshots and lobbed tear gas into the air in an attempt to scatter the demonstrators, a Yemeni security source said on condition of anonymity.

Infuriated protesters smashed security office windows and broke past barriers, hurling stones at buildings and setting two cars on fire outside. Demonstrators tore down the American flag and lifted a white banner saying, “There is no god but Allah and his messenger is Muhammad.” Graffiti sprayed on the walls read, “For the prophet.”

“I went to this demonstration to defend my religion and to denounce this crime, which we consider a great violation against the divinity of Islam and its symbols,” said protester Mohamed Ahmed.

Others demanded that the embassy be shuttered. “It is not the first time they insulted the Koran and Islam, and I think it is about time to close the U.S. Embassy and kick out its ambassador,” another demonstrator told The Times.

Witnesses said Yemeni security forces guarding the embassy had stepped aside at first, allowing protesters to breach the grounds before opening fire. Reaching the embassy gate, which is normally heavily guarded, typically requires passing both two armed vehicles and a checkpoint, making it difficult to pass. Protesters didn’t enter the main offices of the embassy.

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Al-Qaeda brings the fight to Yemen’s capital

Time reports: The doctor’s trembling hands were still wrapped in blood-stained surgical gloves. Outside the gate of the Yemeni capital’s police academy, Dr. Ahmed Idrees was speaking to a crowd of cameras and microphones about the latest assault on Sana’a. Two hours earlier, an assailant later identified as Mohammed Nasher al-Uthy, 20, hurled an explosive into a crowd of cadets leaving the academy for a weekend at home. Ten were killed and fifteen wounded. Al-Uthy himself lost several limbs in the blast, dying in a hospital an hour after the attack. Noting similarities with an incident in May, Idrees said, “The characteristics of this attack are the same we saw in Saba’een Street.” The suicide attack on Saba’een had been massive: 96 soldiers were killed while rehearsing for a military military parade commemorating Yemen’s unification. In both cases, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based franchise of the terrorist organization, claimed responsibility.

After the Yemeni army’s lighting campaign forced Al-Qaeda from its strongholds in the south of the country, AQAP is striking at the heart of the government. Assaults in Sana’a are on the rise. In the space of less than two months, five bombings have been attempted by Al-Qaeda-affiliates. The first was Saba’een Street. Weeks later, a bomber wearing an explosive belt panicked moments before blowing himself up in a post office, throwing his belt over a wall and fleeing. Early this month, Colonel Mohammed Al-Qudami of Yemen’s Political Security was killed by a car bomb as he drove through the capital. Two days later a Sana’a police chief, Saleh Al-Mustafa, watched his car explode minutes after getting out. The police academy is only the latest target in a wave of attacks Al-Qaeda has vowed to keep up.

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Leading experts call on Obama to focus on aid instead of drone attacks on Yemen

Atlantic Council: Twenty-seven leading foreign policy experts have sent a letter to President Obama, calling for a broader approach on US policy towards Yemen that “expands beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism.” As US intelligence agencies point to the rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) activity making Yemen the next front in counterterrorism, the letter, signed by diplomats, security specialists, scholars, and US policy experts, argues that current US policy is short-sighted. It strongly urges for better policy that still serves America’s national interests by decreasing extremism and combating security threats in the region, but through a comprehensive, long-term approach that addresses Yemen’s social, economic, and political challenges.

The five-page letter, signed by, among others, former US Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, argues that current US counterterrorism policy toward Yemen “does not address the underlying causes that have propelled such [militant] forces to find fertile ground in Yemen” and that US public diplomacy only reinforces such perceptions: “Although the Department of State, USAID, and others have invested millions in development and governance projects, the perception both in the US and in Yemen is that we are singularly focused on AQAP. Yemenis need to know that their country is more than a proxy battleground and that our long-term commitment to the stability, development, and legitimacy of the country matches our more immediate and urgent commitment to the defeat of AQAP.”

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How Obama’s drones help al Qaeda

Ibrahim Mothana, a writer, activist and co-founder of the Watan Party in Yemen, writes: “Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda,” a Yemeni lawyer warned on Twitter last month. President Obama should keep this message in mind before ordering more drone strikes like Wednesday’s, which local officials say killed 27 people, or the May 15 strike that killed at least eight Yemeni civilians.

Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — “the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.”

Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s war in Yemen is helping al Qaeda

Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman write: After years of sending drones and commandos into Pakistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week finally admitted the obvious: The US is “fighting a war” there. But American robots and special forces aren’t just targeting militants in Pakistan. They’re doing the same — with increasing frequency and increasing lethality — in Yemen. The latest drone attack happened early Wednesday in the Yemeni town of Azzan, killing nine people. It’s the 23rd strike in Yemen so far this year, according to the Long War Journal. In Pakistan, there have been only 22.

Surely, if America is at war in Pakistan, it’s at war in Yemen, too. And it’s time for the Obama administration to admit it.

For all the handwringing about the undeclared, drone-led war in Pakistan, it’s quietly been eclipsed. Yemen is the real center of the America’s shadow wars in 2012. After the US killed al-Qaida second in command Abu Yahya al-Libi earlier this month, Pakistan is actually running out of significant terrorists to strike. Yemen, by contrast, is a target-rich environment — and that’s why the drones are busier there these days.

The White House has declared al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen is to be the biggest terror threat to Americans today. The campaign to neutralize that threat is far-reaching — involving commandos, cruise missiles, and, of course, drone aircraft. It is also, according to some experts on the region, completely backfiring. Since the US ramped up its operations in Yemen in 2009, the ranks of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, have swelled from 300 fighters to more than 1,000. [Continue reading...]

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Obama is letting the U.S. get sucked into war on the Arabian penninsula

Gregory Johnsen writes: In Yemen, Obama appears to be headed down exactly the road he has been trying to avoid for the past two-and-a-half years: getting sucked into a war from which there is no easy exit.

Miller’s article in today’s Washington Post gives us some insight to the thought process that is making this drift possible.

“But officials said the campaign is now also aimed at wiping out a layer of lower-ranking operatives through strikes that can be justified because of threats they pose to the mix of U.S. Embassy workers, military trainers, intelligence operatives and contractors scattered across Yemen.”

In other words, the US has inserted, trainers, operatives and contractors into Yemen in an effort to erode the threat presented by AQAP, but those trainers, operatives and contractors attract attacks from Yemenis who are upset with a foreign military presence (no matter how small) on their land. And then when these trainers, operatives and contractors come under attack as they have recently in Aden and Hudaydah the US feels the need to respond and so it widens the target list even further – which then drives even more people into the arms of AQAP.

This is not going to end well. At this point, how does it end[?] The US has tried 2.5 years of drone and missile strikes in Yemen — and despite the individuals it has killed — AQAP continues to grow and appears just as eager and able to strike at the US. So, what happens, if a “missile surge” doesn’t work in Yemen?

What then does the US do?

I have argued for several years now that the US needs to draw as narrow of a circle as possible when it comes to targeting AQAP in Yemen. I worried then as I do now, that any expansion of targeting in Yemen would find the US in a war that it could never kill its way out of. And indeed that, I fear, is what is taking place right now. In an effort to destroy the threat coming out of Yemen, the US is getting sucked further into the quicksand of a conflict it doesn’t understand and one in which its very presence tilts the tables against the US.

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Video: Yemen activists say torture continues

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Yemen must not be allowed to become another Somalia

David Hearst writes: If there is one constant in a crisis-strewn world, it is that the humanitarian situation in Yemen just gets worse. This time last year, Yemen’s dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was beating a long rearguard retreat against his eventual ouster. Oxfam had just issued a report saying that one third of Yemenis suffered from hunger and chronic malnutrition.

Today, Saleh is out and his relatives are in the process of being prised from the key positions he put them in. Shortly after al-Qaida’s attack on a rehearsal for a military parade on Monday, from which over 100 soldiers have now died, two of Saleh’s relatives were demoted from the central security forces and the interior ministry, including Saleh’s nephew Yahya. In April, it took 19 days of defiance, before Saleh’s half brother, General Mohammed Saleh al-Amar resigned his command of the Yemeni air forces. If anyone is in charge of Yemen these days its most likely to be the US ambassador who regularly heaps praise on the man they made president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

But whether Hadi turns out to be his own man or another Hamid Karzai makes little difference to the general suffering. This week, seven aid agences (Care, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Mercy Corps, Oxfam and Save the Children) said that 44% of the population – 10 million people – were going hungry. One quarter of them were in need of urgent emergency aid. Wherever you turn, another red light flashes. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said that nearly a million children under five were suffering from acute malnutrition and over one quarter of them could die.

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