Ahead of what is poised to be a heated debate next Friday at the U.N. General Assembly, the international NGO Human Rights Watch has released an exhaustive and shocking report alleging that the U.S. has failed to comply with international law in its use of drones to fight counterterrorism. Gathered over the course of six weeks from a HRW reporter on the ground in Yemen, the report focuses on six specific drone strikes that led to the death of 82 people—at least 57 of whom were civilians—according to the organization.
Its author, Letta Tayler, a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast that the six incidents “represent a range of questions that the [Obama] administration needs to answer—from indiscriminate attacks to killing when capture may have been feasible.”
The findings paint a portrait of a drone strike program starkly different than the one spelled out during remarks by President Obama in May of this year. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals—we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” the president said, adding that terrorists would only be considered a viable target for a drone strike if capture was not feasible.
Separately on Tuesday, the NGO Amnesty International released its own report on drone use in Pakistan, finding analogus accounts of civilian deaths.
The HRW report alleges that Obama has continued to approve drone strikes in which a target’s “imminent threat” is not defined, or the option of capture not fully exhausted. On top of potentially unlawful strikes, Tayler writes, the U.S. has neither offered consolation to the families of civilians killed, as promised by former CIA Director John Brennan, nor so much as acknowledged their role in the death of innocent Yemenis.
America’s failure to acknowledge these wrongful deaths is demonizing it, Tayler concludes. “It’s gotten to the point where many Yemenis fear the U.S. more than they fear al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” she said. “When the U.S. government is considered more of a demon that one of the most notorious groups in the world...Obama has a major image problem.”
(Human Rights Watch asked the CIA, White House, Department of Defense, and Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to comment on its report. Only the CIA formally responded, declining to comment.)
Here are the essential parts of the 97-page report, which is organized into summaries of six separate reported drone strikes. The entire document is available here.
1. “I saw my son, charred, in the front seat. I didn’t even know that he was driving for Hamid that day”
Date: April 17, 2013
Killed: Alleged local al Qaeda Leader and 2 civilians—his driver and bodyguard
Legal Concern: Some Yemeni officials say they could have simply captured the al Qaeda leader
Just after 8:30 p.m. on April 17, 2013, a four-wheel drive vehicle carrying an alleged al Qaeda leader, 35-year-old Hamid al-Radmi, was struck by three hellfire missiles dropped by two drones overhead. Al-Radmi was killed instantly. So was his 20-year-old driver, Akram Ahmed Hamoud, a new father who was driving the supposed leader in return for help getting into military academy. Also killed in the attack was his bodyguard, 28-year-old Ismail al-Magdishi. (Al-Radmi’s second bodyguard, 28-year-old Ghazi al-Emad, succumbed to injuries later that night). The brother of the bodyguard described the gruesome scene to Human Rights Watch:
“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.”
Whether or not al-Radmi was a valid military target is up for debate—meaning the killing of his driver and two bodyguards are considered unlawful as well. According to Human Rights Watch, there is no proof that he participated in AQAP military operations. Even more troubling, officials in Yemen say they could have easily arrested al-Radmi if they had been directed to. “He was in my office all the time and I could even have gone to his house to arrest him,” said one ranking security officer in Wessab. (Another Yemeni official denied this claim).
2. “The bodies were burned like animals and none of them [security forces] even attempted to help.”
Date: January 23, 2013
Casualties: Low-Level Militants
Legal Concern: No clear proof of an imminent threat, disproportionate harm
A college student driving a car to earn money for his family as well as an elementary school teacher and father of three were among four Yemenis killed when a missile released from a drone struck a Toyota SUV near Al-Masnaah on January 23, 2013. The other two killed in the attack, believed to be militants of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were allegedly low-level militants—one a cousin of the teacher. But the reason they were considered dangerous enough to be targets isn’t clear, according to Human Rights Watch. A relative of one of the men killed told the group that the bodies were so charred they were unrecognizable—forcing relatives to identify them by their teeth. When neighbors descended on the scene of the drone attack (which one described as sounding “like a big generator”) they witnessed a horrific scene. The father of the elementary school teacher shared his memory of the day with HRW:
“The car was still burning. Body parts were spread across the area. Security forces came, the police and the Central Security Forces [which at the time operated a US-funded and trained Counter-Terrorism Unit]. All they did was remove the license plate of the car and take some photos and then they left. They did not even set up a roadblock. The bodies were burned like animals and none of them even attempted to help. I screamed, ‘Guys, be human!’ and started throwing sand at the fire.”
3. “The US is planting the seeds of terrorism with such killings...it makes al Qaeda look good.”
Date: November 7, 2012
Casualties: Local al Qaeda leader and his bodyguard, possibly an 8-year-old boy
Legal Concern: Unclear whether the al Qaeda leader was a “valid military target.” Possibility that military officials in Yemen used an 8-year-old boy to carry out the attack
Adnan al-Qadhi, a lieutenant colonel in an elite Yemeni military unit, was standing in front of his car and had just picked up the phone, exclaiming“Marhaba!” (hello), to his wife, when a missile from a drone struck, killing him and his bodyguard instantly. A Yemeni government official told Human Rights Watch that the White House had confirmed only that al-Qadhi recruited for AQAP, not that he was an acting member. The strike inflamed al-Qadhi’s community, specifically the Sanhan tribe to which he belonged. Many threatened to join al Qaeda in revenge. “Here when America is our enemy you are a hero. It makes al-Qaeda look good and gains the sympathy of the people,” said one of the tribe’s influential members. Another described the event as “planting the seeds of terrorism.” The brother of al-Qadhi spoke to Human Rights Watch, as well: “Would the Americans accept it if a Yemeni warplane came and killed Americans without any judicial process?”
Incensed by the killing, AQAP members launched their own investigation into the attack, reportedly landing upon 8-year-old Barq al-Kulaibi and his father, a Republican guard, who were allegedly employed by the Yemeni militants to help carry out the attack. In a recorded video, 8-year-old al-Kulaibi admits to placing a tracking “chip” in al-Qadhi’s pocket while he went to the bathroom. Shortly after the video was posted, both the 8-year-old boy and his father were apparently abducted. They have not been seen since. Both are feared dead.
4. “We are just qat farmers”
Date: September 2, 2012
Casualties: 12 civilians
Legal Concern: The missile allegedly hit the wrong vehicle
One of the more gruesome of the six reported attacks is the September 2, 2012 incident in which a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying 14 civilians in the hamet of Sarar was struck, killing 12 and severely burning the other two. The intended target, an al Qaeda chief named Abd al-Raouf al-Dahab, was not in the vehicle. The testimony describing the incident is chilling. “About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs," said one local Sheik. Villagers remember also the image of a mother and daughter, who died holding onto one another in a “lifeless embrace.” Caught on tape while being treated at a nearby hospital, Nasser Makhut, the driver of the vehicle said softly (his skin burned black): “We are just qat farmers.”
A Yemeni official told Human Rights Watch that the attack was a blatant “mistake,” and that the missile “hit the wrong vehicle.” Other officials in Yemen have expressed doubt as to whether Abd al-Raouf was even a member of AQAP.
Relatives of the dead were forced to collect the charred body parts of their loved ones and transport them to their burial sites. After being contacted by Human Rights Watch, the Yemeni government offered some financial compensation to the families. “This piece for me illustrates where things can break down,” Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel and advocate in the US Program of Human Rights Watch (and the report’s editor), told The Daily Beast. “Whether it was bad intelligence, lack of understand of environment, or pure mistake we don’t know but when you look at the impact it has on the local community… it’s shocking. What would that be like if dozens in your community were killed for no reason?”
5. “When the drones come, the children run into their houses, terrified”
Date: August 29, 2012
Casualties: Five men, including an anti-al Qaeda cleric and a village policeman
Legal Concern: Disproportionate amount of civilian loss
In the mud-hut filled farming village of Khashamir, five men were standing outside of a mosque on August 29, 2012 when they were struck and killed by four missiles, delivered by drone. While three of those killed were believed to members of the AQAP, two were considered “pillars” of the community, according to the report, and posed no threat to the U.S. In fact, one of them, ironically, spoke outwardly against al Qaeda. The attack is believed to have caused a disproportionate amount of civilian loss.
The two men that were killed are still deeply mourned in the community. Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, a 26-year-old who was one of the few policemen in Khashamir, was also the father of a 2-year-old son. His mother told Human Rights Watch that he went to work each day in his uniform, “so proud of his work.” Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber, 42, was the father of seven children and a veritable leader in the community as the imam at the local mosque. Jaber openly denounced the violent Islamist militancy of AQAP, teaching at a government school where he hoped to promote peace. He was studying for a doctorate at the time of his death. A cousin of one of the fallen described the scene:
“It was dark except for the burning car. We could make out many body parts scattered several meters apart—fingers, hands, internal organs. Most bodies had no legs and one was without a face. Another had no head. Until now they still have not found that head…Imagine this horror.”
One of the men was identified by his cheekbone, another by an ornate belt that he was still wearing from a wedding he the night before (the belt was strangely undamaged). Now the children in Khashamir, including Walid’s 2-year-old son, run into their houses terrified when drones come. Whenever Walid’s son is shown a picture of his deceased father he cries: “the plane, the plane.”
6. “The clothes of the women and children were hanging from the treetops with the flesh on every tree.”
Date: December 17, 2009
Casualties: 14 al Qaeda suspects, 41 civilians
Legal Concern: Level of threat may not have warranted an attack of this magnitude
The deadliest of the attacks in the report was one in which government officials initially claimed that “34 terrorists” had been killed in al-Majalah. In reality, the December 2009 strike—which occurred just three days after the state department classified AQAP as a terrorist organization—reportedly left only 14 alleged al-Qaeda members dead, versus 41 civilians. Among the civilians reported dead, all of whom hailed from just two extended families, were 21 children and nine women. At least five of the women were pregnant at the time of their death. A prominent tribal leader who arrived on the scene shortly after the attack described the unimaginable devastation to Human Rights Watch.
“The clothes of the women and children were hanging from the treetops with the flesh on every tree, every rock. But you did not know if the flesh was of human beings or animals. Some bodies were intact but most, they melted.”
Two different documents, released through WikiLeaks, allege an elaborate attempt by both the Yemen and U.S. governments to hide their roles in the attack. The remaining family members of the civilians killed were never compensated and the U.S. has never admitted its role. “America’s goal is to defeat Al-Qaeda. Instead they are creating more Al-Qaeda,” said Moqbil Abu-Lukaish, a relative of 28 of the villagers killed in the attack.
The document ends by asking the Obama administration to uphold its pledge to transparency. The specific demands Human Rights Watch has for Washington include explaining the “full legal basis” for the targeted killing of innocent civilians and “implement[ing] a system of prompt and meaningful compensation for civilian loss of life.”