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Obama Administration Has Launched Drone Strikes Against AQAP Suspects Who Could’ve Been Captured

Ahmad al-Sabooli holds photos of his father, mother and sister, all killed in drone strike on Sarar | Photo by Letta Tayler/Human Rights Watch and featured in report

Both Amnesty International and Human Right Watch (HRW) released reports on drone strikes launched by the United States, which included firsthand accounts of what happened from people who witnessed family, friends or others being killed or wounded.

In some of the cases, individuals allegedly known to be members of al Qaeda, Taliban or other armed groups were killed, but, in various other instances, victims killed had no connection to any alleged terrorists. A number of people even died trying to rescue the wounded and clean up the devastation after the “target” was hit.

Portions of the Amnesty International report, which focused on strikes in Pakistan, were already highlighted at Firedoglake. The following will look at portions of the report from HRW that examines multiple drone strikes in Yemen.

In Wessab on April 17, 2013, suspected local AQAP leader, Hamid al-Radmi was killed by two drones that launched “at least three Hellfire missiles” at a car. His driver and two bodyguards were killed. Al-Radmi could probably have been captured as he had been “meeting regularly with security and political officials.”

On January 23, 2013, four people were killed in a truck in al-Masnaah. Two of the passengers were “suspected AQAP members” while two others, a driver and cousin, had been hired to drive the AQAP suspects to Sanhan, just southeast of the country’s capital, Sanaa. Yemen’s Minister of Interior found they had no ties to the two AQAP suspects.

Lt. Col. Adnan al-Qadhi, who was an “officer in an elite Yemeni army unit” suspected of being a local AQAP leader, was killed along with a bodyguard on November 7, 2012, in Beit al-Ahmar. He, too, could probably have been captured. “In April 2013, AQAP issued a video in which an 8-year-old boy, held with his father, a soldier, ‘confessed’ that military officers instructed him to plant a tracking device on al-Qadhi,” the report said.

On September 2, 2012, a vehicle headed to the city of Radaa was attacked by two drones in Sarar. Twelve passengers, including three children and a pregnant woman, were killed. Apparently, the target was Abd al-Raouf al-Dahab, who had not been in the vehicle. It is unclear if he is even a member of AQAP and, after Human Rights Watch and others campaigned on behalf of victims, Yemeni authorities finally provided some compensation in June 2013 to families for the deaths.

Five men in Khashamir in Yemen were standing behind a local mosque when three Hellfire missiles were launched at them by a drone on August 29, 2012. “The strike killed four of the men instantly,” according to Human Rights Watch, “hurling their body parts across the grounds. The blast of a fourth missile hit the fifth man as he crawled away, pinning him lifeless to a wall.”

Three of the people killed were alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while two others they were meeting were Salim bin Jaber, a cleric who had preached against violence being committed by AQAP, and Salim’s cousin, Walid bin Ali Jaber, a police officer in the village. AQAP members had “demanded a meeting with the cleric because the previous Friday he had made a particularly strong denunciation of AQAP at the local mosque.” Walid participated in the meeting as “a security measure.”

And the report highlights the attack on al-Majalah on December 17, 2009, a deadly strike where the US launched at least five US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles with cluster munitions. Forty-one local civilians in a Bedouin camp, including nine women and twenty-one children were killed, along with fourteen suspected AQAP fighters including Muhammad al-Kazami, who apparently was the target. [The attack involved indiscriminate cluster munitions and was given particular focus in Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars project.]


The drone attack in Wessab that killed al-Radmi is worth detailing further, as it seriously undermines the claims by President Barack Obama’s administration that terrorist suspects are being captured when feasible.

Farea al-Muslimi, who is from Wessab and testified before Congress in April, worked as a consultant for HRW and interviewed twenty-five residents. Two were local security officials and three were relatives of people killed.

According to al-Muslimi’s research, government officials in Yemen did consider al-Radmi to be a “local AQAP leader and recruiter.” He “spent a decade in prison—four years starting in 1995 for killing his cousin, and six years starting in 2004 on a terrorism-related conviction.” A “friend” said al-Radmi had traveled to Iraq to fight the US after troops invaded the country in 2003. However, al-Radmi was an influential person in Wessab.

Al-Radmi met regularly with security officials at government offices just a few minutes’ walk from his house and was returning with a local official from a meeting an hour’s drive from his home when he was killed,” describes the HRW report.

When villagers came upon the site of the attack, “they saw al-Radmi’s charred body half ejected from the vehicle, two other charred corpses inside, and a fourth man outside the car.”

Ahmad Hamoud Qaed Daer, the father of al-Radmi’s driver who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, told HRW:

The fire was high; no one dared get close and the planes [drones] were hovering above. I also heard someone saying, “I’m Ghazi al-Emad, please help me.” I couldn’t do anything.… It was dark and there was a lot of smoke. There was no moon and I didn’t even have a flashlight. I saw my son, charred, in the front seat. … I didn’t even know that he was driving for Hamid that day.

An attempt was made to rescue Emad. But, “His [Emad’s] legs were cut off from the knee down and there was a lot of blood coming from his mouth.”

“We saw later that his stomach was bleeding as well and his eyes were burned. He couldn’t open them and was blinded. He was screaming and then his voice slowly dropped. It became lower, lower, and lower until he couldn’t talk,” Daer recounted.

This drone attack created much anger and outrage. Qaed al-Farimi, a well-known resident in Wessab who was a friend of al-Radmi’s, said the blast “terrorized the people.”

People were going to their roofs and screaming … and cursing, “Who is this bombing at night? [Expletive] his father!” They [the blasts] terrified even children and women. Some ran out of their houses and some ran to the basements to hide where their cows live because of the fear. Even the second day, the planes [drones] were there until we buried them. I swear by Allah if we had had weapons, not a single plane would leave. We would take them down because they terrified the village.

A ranking security officer, who refused to be named in the report, apparently believes he could have gone to al-Radmi’s house to arrest him. Another local security officer believed this as well. He had a meeting in three days with a governor of Dhamar. But there was never an order put out for his arrest.

Relatives would have been willing to turn him into authorities. HRW’s report says relatives play an important role in administering justice in Yemen’s tightly knit family and tribal system.”

A cousin named Muhammad ali Saleh, who is an elderly farmer, believes the US turned al-Radmi into a martyr.

“They should have taken him to court, brother,” he said. “Charge him and keep him in prison and even hang him there up and down every day but not kill him like that if he committed a crime. Now people are crying about him everywhere. What does that accomplish?”

It’s unclear what role al-Radmi had in AQAP. However, that is insignificant compared to the fact that the terror and rage could have been avoided if the US had sought to capture al-Radmi.

Three of the cases HRW investigated involved evidence that indicated the “target” could have been captured because the area had been under government control.

The secrecy surrounding the US government’s drone policies and operations, along with the secrecy of the Yemeni government, makes it difficult to fully assess what is happening in Yemen.

“Lack of access to the attack areas, most of which are too dangerous for international media and investigators to visit,” like in Pakistan, “makes it extremely difficult to verify casualty figures, conclusively determine how many of those killed were civilians, and learn the full circumstances of a strike,” according to HRW.

What is not hard to figure out, and further confirmed by this HRW report, is the destructive effect US drone strikes have had on Yemeni society. They directly foment rage that can be channeled into malicious acts like killing alleged informers. They drive Yemenis to want to take up arms against the US. They further weaken the rule of law in Yemen because it deprives officials of the opportunity to try and bring these suspects to justice appropriately.

Finally, many Yemenis have been confronted with what they think is a choice they must make: drones or AQAP. It is a false choice yet the feelings of powerlessness perpetuated by US influence and counterterrorism operations in Yemen feeds this dynamic, which is quite clearly unhealthy for the stability of the country.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."