A Yemeni civil engineer has filed a lawsuit in a United States federal court requesting that a judge declare that a drone strike was unlawful and resulted in the wrongful deaths of two members of his family.
On August 29, 2012, Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s brother-in-law, Salem, and his nephew, Waleed, were killed. The drone strike was reportedly a “signature strike,” which means based on patterns of life an attack team decided to carry out the strike that killed his family.
Salem, according to the complaint filed by Reprieve, was “an imam known locally for his sermons against terrorist violence.” Days before Salem’s death, “he had preached in Khashamir against al Qaeda and its methods.”
“Faisal’s nephew Waleed was the village’s local traffic policeman, who accompanied Salem as protection to an evening meeting with three youths who had driven into the village earlier in the day and had asked to meet with Salem. These three young men were the apparent targets of the drone strike,” the complaint claims.
“While the drone operators fixed on the visitors as their principal targets, Salem and Waleed were anonymously—but deliberately—attacked simply for having spoken to them.”
The complaint argues that Khashamir was not nearby “any battlefield” and, therefore, there was no “urgent military purpose or other emergency” to justify exterminating Salem and Waleed.
“The strike plainly violated the Torture Victim Prevention Act’s ban on extrajudicial killings,” the complaint further suggests. “Even if the strikes were taken as part of the United States’ war on al Qaeda, the strike violated the principles of distinction and proportionality. These are established norms of the laws of war, which are elements of customary international law that the United States explicitly acknowledges bind this country and apply to its drone warfare operations.”
An unnamed Yemeni official contacted family to offer condolences, which could be viewed as a tacit admission that wrongful deaths occurred.
Faisal bin ali Jaber pursued avenues of justice in Yemen but was met with “official silence.” He traveled to the US in late 2013 to meet with members of Congress and representatives of President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
“Do they approve of such a policy? Do they approve of the killing of innocent civilians in a very far country?” Jaber wanted to find out. Or, are they people who believe Yemen means them no harm? “What is their reaction? Are they a peaceful society which really doesn’t mean any harm to other people?”
While officials were willing to offer “personal condolences” for his loss of family, “they could not or would not explain the reason for the attack or acknowledge officially that a US drone killed” his relatives.
Obama acknowledged weeks ago that a US drone had killed two hostages, an Italian and an American, who were being held hostage by al Qaeda. He stated that victims’ “families deserve to know the truth” and maintained that his apology demonstrated how the US is willing to “confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
In the filed complaint, Reprieve asks, “The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?”
Salem, who was 43 years-old, had a wife and seven children—Mohammed, Ahmed, Abdullah, Muznah, Shaimaa, Omaimah and Khadijah. Waleed was 26-years-old and had a wife and a child.
From the complaint:
…The week before the strike, Khashamir was unusually full of activity with Eid Ramadan and preparations for the August 28th hometown wedding of Faisal’s eldest son, Wahb. Yemeni wedding celebrations are elaborate and can extend for a week or more. The extended family of bin Ali Jabers converged on the village. Faisal had planned a full week of celebrations and was in Khashamir before the wedding arranging elaborate entertainment and meals.
Salem gave a guest sermon at a local in the port town of Mukalla. He spoke about “killing outside of law.” He described studying the “ideology” of al Qaeda “opponents and specifically challenged al Qaeda to justify its attacks on civilians.”
According to Faisal, the sermon went something like, “al Qaeda say that Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi [Yemen’s president] is kafir [a disbeliever] because he supports foreigners, and that people who support AbdoRabo [including Yemenis] are kuffaar [disbelievers] and can be attacked. This is not permissible in Islam. No religion, no constitution can ever accept this. I challenge al Qaeda to show me one piece of evidence in Islam that says such killing is justified.”
Family feared the outspoken preacher might face attacks and endanger family if he kept speaking in this manner. But, according to Faisal, when asked to tone his rhetoric down, he told Faisal, “I am an imam. If I, a leader in my community, do not take it on myself to speak against extremism, who will?”
On August 29, three men, who were unknown to the local villagers and were driving a 1980s model Suzuki Vitara 4X4, entered the village and went to the house of Salem’s father, Ahmed. They requested to speak to him but Ahmed was afraid and told them Salem was “visiting neighboring villages.”
The same men returned around 5 pm that same day. Ahmed informed the men that Salem was not here but they could wait “in his house or return in the evening when they would find Salem at the mosque after evening prayers.” So, the men returned at 8:30 pm and had a “local child” inform Salem that they were there to meet with him.
Waleed offered to accompany Salem. They went to meet the men. Two of the men sat with Salem underneath a palm tree. The third man stood nearby and watched the meeting.
As described in the complaint, it was around 9 pm. The first missile hit the meeting area and then a second, third and a fourth missile.
Eyewitnesses say the “first two strikes directly hit Salem, Waleed and two of the three strangers. The third missile seemed to have been aimed at where the third visitor was located, somewhat apart from the others. It reportedly hit him as he lay dazed or wounded after the first two strikes. The fourth strike hit the car.”
Each of the men were blown to pieces. In order to find their body parts, people who knew them had to search for “distinctive hair” on their heads.
The Intercept reported in April that US intelligence had been notified by Yemeni security personnel that Salem and Waleed were not the targets.
“To this day,” the complaint explains, “nobody in the village knows the identities and affiliations of the three young strangers. Nor does anyone know what purpose they had in wanting to meet with Salem. All that is known from the accounts of people who saw them before the strike and from their scattered remains found in the blast area, is that they were young, either still in or just out of their teens, and that they wanted to discuss Salem’s anti-terrorism sermon with him.”
Reprieve contends that none of the unknown men killed were “high-level, high value targets.” If they were “acceptable targets,” they could have easily been arrested because they spent a “significant period” loitering before the meeting. And the human rights organization adds, “There is no moral or legal rationale that justifies US drone operators waiting to strike until after Salem and Waleed joined the three visitors.”
The deaths of Salem and Waleed were “both avoidable” and “part of a broader picture of willful official blindness to unnecessary innocent civilian death that pervades the US drone program.”
Image of Faisal bin Ali Jaber