Yemen, a country ravaged by a three-year civil war, its civilian deaths amplified by Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed campaign of relentless airstrikes and forced hunger, has also been one big drone target for U.S. strikes since 2002, with the stated goal of killing off the al-Qaeda fighters there.
It’s never been easy to get access to data on drone strikes — they are often carried out in remote areas, where even local journalists and NGO workers are kept away from strike sites. Most of the areas tend to be rural, with little in the way of census data and coroner’s reports. They also tend to take place in Muslim communities (Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan) where a quick burial is seen as a religious necessity.
Despite all of this,an Associated Press investigation, done in conjunction with the U.K.- based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, gives us a horrible glimpse into how the Trump administration has stepped up the drone strikes there.
The investigation found that:
- Since 2017, at least 205 civilians have died by U.S. drone strikes. (Counts vary, though — the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, counted 331 killed during the same period.)
- Under President Trump, the United States has carried out 176 strikes in Yemen so far. During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, there were 154 strikes carried out there.
- At least 88 people in total — militants and civilians alike — have been killed so far this year in Yemen by U.S. drone strikes.
- At least 30 of the dead were likely were not al-Qaeda fighters. Based on interviews with tribal leaders, family members, and witnesses, the AP found that 24 of these were civilians and at least 6 were pro-government fighters,
If nothing else, these numbers might explain the Trump administration’s defense of the Saudi strike that killed dozens of children in a school bus in August.
When your death is a secret
This isn’t to say that the strikes never take out al-Qaeda members, nor to say that the strikes under President Trump are intentionally more deadly (in one 2015 raid, the U.S. killed 66 civilians, including 31 children).
All of this comports with what we’ve long known about drone attacks: A 2015 investigation by The Intercept showed that almost 90 percent of people killed in U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan alone were not the intended targets.
But there are far more strikes under the Trump administration, which increases the odds of mistakes — be it acting on bad intelligence, or just operator fatigue. For instance, a January 1 strike killed Mohammed Mansar Abu Sarima, 70, and an unnamed relative, both farmers in Badaya.
“If nobody’s pushing back against that, then you open up a Pandora’s Box of targeted killings where no one is able to uphold a moral stance because nobody actually said something about what the U.S. was doing with covert killings.”
Sarima’s brother, Mohammed Abu Sarim, told the AP, “We don’t have any affiliation. They are simple farmers who don’t know how to read or write. We live in fear. Drones don’t leave the sky.”
Shortly thereafter, 14-year-old Yahia al-Hassbi, a shepherd, was struck by a drone while tending his goats. Also killed was a construction worker who happened to be passing by.
Sometimes, a sustained campaign of strikes, as the one that hit Hadramawt in March, prompts people to try and flee. And when they try, the drones target their cars, killing families.
These deaths might be recorded by the Pentagon, but that database is not being shared, even though President Obama signed an executive order calling for some transparency (far from full) on the number of drone strikes and their casualties.
At the time, activists felt that the executive order was intended more for a future president rather than Obama himself. Well, so much for that. The Trump administration has ignored parts of the order.
“The Obama administration imposed some limited policy constraints on drone strikes aimed at protecting civilians,” said Alex Moorehead, Director, Program on Counter-terrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute.
“However, these were not enshrined in law and the Trump administration moved quickly to loosen these protections, limit their application in places like Yemen and Somalia, and significantly expand strikes in the past two years, putting civilians at much greater risk,” added Moorehead, answering questions via email.
Congress, he explained, has already enacted some important provisions requiring the U.S. military to report on civilian casualties. But more could and should be done.
“Reports provided by the U.S. military last year, while important, lack sufficient detail – for example by providing a breakdown of figures for specific countries that would allow more detailed comparison with the tallies of independent organizations,” said Moorehead.
He said Congress should closely scrutinize the Pentagon’s reporting, and demand detailed explanations that address discrepancies in U.S. military counts with those by independent organizations.
Moorehead is also concerned about the role of the CIA in these strikes, which, he said, remain “almost completely secret, despite reports that the CIA role in carrying out drone strikes will again be expanded under this administration.”
ThinkProgress sent queries to the Pentagon as well as the CIA but did not hear back prior to publication.
Bodies that don’t count
Of course whether any of these civilian casualties is even “credible” as far as the U.S. government is concerned is in question. If these places are remote, and records aren’t kept, if these deaths and injuries are unreported, and if the military does not contact the families of those killed, then how can they be counted? And how can practices that lead to their deaths be examined and changed?
Wim Zwijnenburg, program leader of the humanitarian disarmament group at PAX, a Netherlands-based group focusing on the protection of civilians,said that the AP investigation did not surprise him.
“But we had hoped, after the Obama administration policy, they would take cautionary measures, but apparently, those have failed, and children are being killed in drone strikes,” said Zwijnenburg.
Zwijnenburg said it’s largely unknown if the United States is basing its operations on its own intelligence or solely from local sources or foreign partners, how that information is vetted, how they verify that the target is a legitimate one, etc.
One thing seems pretty obvious: If intelligence prior to the war in Yemen wasn’t great, as the hundreds of civilian deaths suggest — then how strong could it be through the fog of a brutal civil war?
Additionally, the use of drones in counter-terrorism operations fall outside the rules that govern war — that is, the justifiable use of lethal force outside armed conflict. And although the United States supports the Saudi effort in Yemen, where it is carrying out airstrikes in support of the government, the U.S. is not officially at war in Yemen.
“So is that something an American citizen wants to see, where their own government can operate freely, without transparency, carrying out extrajudicial killing — could be with drones, could be also be with manned aircraft or special forces,” said Zwijnenburg.
“If nobody’s pushing back against that, then you open up a Pandora’s Box of targeted killings where no one is able to uphold a moral stance because nobody actually said something about what the U.S. was doing with covert killings,” he added.
But even if one accepts that a government can carry out extrajudicial killings in a foreign country, the outrage over the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul would prove otherwise.