A drone strike by the United States, which targeted a wedding convoy, reportedly killed anywhere from ten to seventeen people and injured as many as thirty individuals.
Most of the people killed were civilians, which makes the attack one of the worst in Yemen since the US began to launch drone strikes against people the government believes are senior operatives of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or militants, who are members of “associated forces” the government thinks it can link to al Qaeda.
Reuters reported the wedding convoy had been mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy. CNN quoted a “top Yemeni national security official who asked not to be named,” who said, “This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government.”
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), six to thirteen people killed in a drone in the province of al-Baydah near Radaa were civilians. Journalist Iona Craig reported for The Times in the UK that “up to a dozen vehicles” had been in the convoy.
Names of the dead were published by Al Masdar:
Hussein Mohammed Saleh Al Ameri, 65
Mohammed Ali Massad Al Ameri, 30
Ali Abdullah Mohammed Al Tays, 35
Zeidan Mohammed Al Ameri, 40
Saif Abdullah Mabkhout Al Ameri, 20
Hussein Mohammed Al Tays, 20
Motlaq Hamoud Mohammed Al Taysi, 45
Saleh Abdullah Mabkhout, 30
Aaref Mohammed Al Taysi, 30
Saleh Massad Al Ameri, 42
Massad Dayfallah Al Ameri, 25
An anonymous Yemeni security official claimed Mohammed Ali Massad Al Ameri was an al Qaeda militant. Another security official in Yemen claimed alleged al Qaeda members, Saleh al Tays and Abdullah al Tays, had been killed. Two prominent tribal sheikhs, Sheikh Abdullah al Taysi and Sheikh Ali Abdullah al Amiri.
President Barack Obama said in a speech on US drone and counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University in May, “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.” If that standard was being followed, then what happened suggests those who launched the strike and officials, who signed off on the attack, believed with “near-certainty” none of the individuals in the convoy were “civilians.”
This drone strike is similar to strikes that have targeted funerals and individuals rescuing victims in the immediate aftermath of strikes. Such strikes are inarguably war crimes.
Eyes in the sky, drones, would have had the area under surveillance. They should have known that a wedding was taking place. It was possibly the plan to strike as the convoy was leaving the wedding.
No women or children have been reported killed. That further supports the idea that this was not a mistake. The US government meant to target suspected members of al Qaeda while they were in the middle of a wedding celebration with family.
Comparatively, on September 2, 2012, in the al-Baydah province, twelve civilians were killed when a drone “missed” its target, a car carrying Abderraouf According to Al-Dhahab. Alkarama, a Swiss-based human rights organization, women and children were killed. Eleven civilians, whose bodies were burned, were killed in the strike. One injured died weeks later in a Cairo hospital.
Yemeni authorities admitted there had been an error and hit the wrong car due to its “proximity” to Al-Dhahab’s car, however, victims disputed the claim that there had been another nearby car.
For over a year, drones had surveilled the region. “The driver of the car, Nasser Mabkhut Al-Sabuli Al-Sabuli, age 45, survived the attack and [remembered] seeing a plane flying over, but had no reason to believe that it would strike the car since it was only carrying civilians. He [remembered] a deluge of fire, burning bodies near him and losing consciousness. And, a representative from a local tribe, Ahmed Said Al-Dhahab, told Alkarama that it had been working to resolve conflict in the region but “every time we come to a solution they come to us with airplanes. These are aircraft that aim to seed discord, not just to spy.”
On May 15, 2012, fourteen civilians, including a pregnant woman, were killed in a strike victims on the residential area in the Jaar province. Victims believed a US drone was behind the attack.
Testimony on the strike was submitted to a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in April:
I was working on my car when I heard the sound of an explosion…I asked the people in the area what happened and they said that a strike had targeted the al Ashrani house. My house is adjacent to the al Ashrani house. I came and found that my house had been destroyed. Three members of my family had been in the house. One of them was injured, while the other two were not hurt. I took all of them and moved them to the house of one of my relatives in the city…The aircraft returned to bomb the people who had gathered to aid the wounded from the first strike. Rockets fell a few meters away from me. I was in my car and saw that it was on fire. I quickly got out of the car and saw a number of people in front of me lying on the ground. They were burning without any clothes. I saw at least seven or eight of them die at that moment.
On March 9, 2012, a US drone strike in the al-Baydah province killed 23-34 individuals. Unnamed US officials claimed an al Qaeda commander training new recruits had been killed, along with 22 militants receiving training. A Washington Post report, which included interviews with human rights activists and relative of victims, called this claim into question as it suggested “many civilians” had died.
A drone strike on a police station in Abyan province took place on July 14, 2011. The police station had been taken over by al Qaeda fighters. Security officials in Yemen said the death toll was high because fighters had been with members of their family.
Much of the details of what happened remain unclear, including the exact number killed. But CNN reported that witnesses had claimed 30 civilians were killed.
Two air strikes in which the US was involved killed a similar number of civilians. On March 14, 2010, according to TBIJ, “A [Joint Special Operations Command] night time precision strike killed two alleged militants in an air raid on a suspected terrorist training site in Abyan province, a known al Qaeda haven.” Local residents, however, told Reuters up to 20 civilians were killed. And, in an unforgettable cruise missile attack on al-Majalah, which Yemenis will never forget, 55 civilian deaths occurred. Fourteen of the deaths were women, including seven who were pregnant, and 21 of the deaths were children.
The strike targeted Mohammed Salah al-Kazami, an alleged al Qaeda leader, but Yeslem Al-Anbouri, a 65-year-old parent of victims in the strike, told Alkarama, “The Yemeni authorities were looking for [al-Kazami] for accusations of terrorism, and he perished in this attack even though he had been jailed in Saudi Arabia before being transferred to the Yemeni authorities who imprisoned him for five years before he was judged and acquitted. He moved about freely and could have been arrested legally at any moment.”
Founders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), like Nasser al-Wuhayshi, Said al-Shehri, and Qasim Raymi have also been reported to have been killed multiple times. Al-Shehri’s death was finally confirmed by an al Qaeda video on July 17, 2013, but that was after he survived multiple drone attacks including one strike on January 22, 2013, that killed three to five people. So, we can consider these strikes that didn’t actually kill targeted AQAP leaders “mistakes” too.
Nabeel Khoury, a former State Department official who served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, wrote in October, “Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones.”
Drones that “mistake” civilians for al Qaeda “militants” play a key role in the generation of these new “enemies.”
Thus far, no US officials have made any statements on the wedding convoy drone strike.