It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon when a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying five members of the Manthari family were headed to the city of al-Sawma’ah in Yemen’s al-Bayda governorate. Relatives say the five men in the truck were looking to pick up a local elder to witness the sale of some land in nearby al-Aqla. As they approached the city, a missile fired by a U.S. drone slammed into their truck, killing three men instantly. Another relative died in the hospital.
The Defense Department issued a statement claiming that the March 29 drone strike killed four terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “No civilians were present and therefore none were injured or killed as a result of the strike,” the statement claimed.
But family members of the victims, tribal leaders, and a human rights group have stepped forward to issue public statements defending those killed. What’s more, they’re offering evidence that the deceased weren’t al Qaeda terrorists but innocent civilians mistakenly targeted by the Pentagon—the victims of a more aggressive drone war waged by the Trump administration that has seen the tripling of strikes and looser targeting rules allowing for more civilian casualties.
Deprived of their family breadwinners and fearful they could be targeted next, the Mantharis are now asking that the U.S. government clear the names of those killed in the strike and offer compensation for their deaths.
“All people here, near and far, know that the targeted individuals have no relationship with al-Qaeda or any other group. This crime requires the strongest condemnation and is considered a dangerous precedent in targeting civilians and horrifying them which itself is terrorism,” reads a statement signed by a dozen community leaders published by the local Tribal Affairs Council.
“Nobody wants al Qaeda out of Yemen more than the people who live with their presence every day. Communities, therefore, won’t protest when the strikes hit the ‘right’ people. But when innocent civilians are killed it’s a different story,” said Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with the human rights group Reprieve, which has been investigating the March 29 strike. “The community leaders and families, like they have here, become rightfully upset. They publicly demand accountability, both from their own government’s and from the U.S. Unfortunately, the chances of them getting it are almost zero.”
It’s a point echoed by the Manthari family’s attorney, Mohammed Hailan. “If the targeted were members of AQAP none of the people here would have cared,” he said, “because a person, if he joins that group, then he has made his decision and decided his own fate.”
The Daily Beast asked the U.S. military’s Central Command whether it still stood by its statement that the March 29 strike killed four al Qaeda terrorists and no civilians. Central Command did not respond to questions at press time, but sent this comment on Monday:
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Based on the information provided, we are conducting a detailed assessment of the strike. We have a deliberate and detailed process for assessing civilian casualty allegations.”
As a candidate, Donald Trump said he would “bomb the shit” out of suspected terrorists if given the chance. Since taking office, President Trump has moved to do just that, bending Obama-era rules meant to limit civilian casualties from drone strikes. Toward the end of its second term the Obama administration made drone strikes outside of active, declared war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan subject to a standard of “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed in a strike and that the targets posed an “imminent threat” to the U.S. By March 2017, the Trump administration had declared Yemen, along with Somalia, an area of active hostilities, paving the way for more and riskier airstrikes.
As a result, the opportunities for civilian casualties from America’s drone war have increased. The U.S. carried out three times as many strikes in Yemen in the first year of Trump’s presidency than it did in 2016, the last year of Obama’s tenure.
The signs that something wasn’t quite right about the March 29 drone strike started trickling from the very beginning. The same day of the strike, a source told Turkey’s Andalou Agency that the attack “targeted a vehicle carrying civilians.”
There have been at least 21 drone strikes in Bayda province since President Trump came to office but the location of the strike, in the relatively quiet Al Sawma’ah district, raised questions.
“There hadn’t been any fighting, attacks or al Qaeda activity,” said Gibson. “In fact, this community has only been hit one other time. Back in 2014, the U.S. struck a number of innocent construction workers. The Yemeni government issued an apology to the families, along with compensation. The U.S. to this day still hasn’t even acknowledged the strike.”
Relatives and community members have since stepped forward to paint a very different picture of the men killed in the attack than the one put out by the Pentagon.
“What you need to know is that these are very simple and nice people. They’re not involved in any politics of any kind. They just made a daily living and they have families that they looked after,’ Mohammed Ahmed Omar al-Manthari, a cousin of one of the men killed in the strike, told The Daily Beast in a phone call.
Family and community members say Abdullah Saleh al-Manthani worked as a migrant mechanic in Saudi Arabia and not as a foot soldier for al Qaeda. At the time of the strike, he had returned to Yemen to await a renewal of his visa. Pictures of Abdullah’s passport provided to The Daily Beast by Reprieve, showing entry and exit stamps to Saudi Arabia, confirm the account.
Al Haj Saleh Mohammed Saleh al-Manthari lost both his son and brother in the attack. In a video recording made by the Manthari family’s attorney, Mohammed Hailan, he describes his son Mohammed Saleh as “just a simple person,” a retired member of the Yemeni military who earned around $140 a month as a security guard at a gas station, making just enough to cover his fuel expenses. “He didn’t go to the left or right. He doesn’t belong to any group. He is all by himself.”
Of course, family members often stick up for their accused relatives—even when those relatives are actually guilty. But community leaders don’t often attest to the innocence of known al Qaeda members. In this case, the sheer number of local leaders and community members willing to proclaim the Mantharis’ innocence gives their claims added weight.
Omar Ahmed al-Bariki witnessed the drone strike and filed a statement with the Manthari family lawyer shortly after the attack. When asked how he knew the men were just “workers,” he said “because their activity and their daily routine was known to the sons of the area and they know for certain that they haven’t been involved with any armed group.” Al-Bariki, interviewed the day after the strike, told the same story as the Manthari family: Mohammed Saleh was a gas station security guard and Salem Mohammed was the head of the local transport workers’ union, calling them “regular citizens just going about their daily lives.”
Hailan, the Manthari family attorney, has taken the community’s complaint to Saleh al-Rasas, the governor of Bayda. He’s also filed a complaint with the primary court in Bayda in the hopes that the Yemeni government will put pressure on the U.S. government to compensate the Manthari family for their loss.
Officially, the U.S. doesn’t offer compensation to the civilian victims of drone strikes in Yemen. Unofficially, however, a small number of family members of civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes have been offered stacks of sequentially marked U.S. bills in amounts ranging from $25,000-50,000 per slain relative by the desperately poor Yemeni government—gestures many believe are initiated by and reimbursed from the U.S. government.
The Mantharis are hoping for compensation but also for answers as to why their relatives were targeted. Based on the slim record of American statements about its targeting procedures, the chances they’ll ever get a satisfactory answer are slim. But the family attorney is hoping that pressing the Mantharis’ case in the courts and in the media will shed light on what happened to their relatives and why.
“We ask anyone concerned among the American people to provide answers to these family members and we welcome any investigation to come and look for yourselves for what has happened to these people,” said Hailan.
Updated May 7, 2018, at 8:44 a.m. to add comment from Central Command.