Yemenis Fear of Drones Focuses Anger on US as Al Qaeda’s Influence Grows

August 9th, 2013 - by admin

Hakim Almasmari / The National & Jason Ditz / & Yalda Hakim / BBC World News – 2013-08-09 02:30:41

Yemenis Fearful as US Attacks on Al Qaeda Grow
Hakim Almasmari / The National

SANAA (August 9, 2013) — Increased government checkpoints turned the streets of the Yemeni capital into an obstacle course yesterday, dampening the start of Eid Al Fitr celebrations and angering residents worried that escalating US drone strikes against alleged Al Qaeda members are destabilising the country.

The stepped-up drone strikes left more dead yesterday, as four Al Qaeda militants and two civilians were killed when the car in which they were travelling in the province of Mareb, about 175 kilometres east of the capital, was hit by a missile and incinerated, Yemeni security officials said.

It was the sixth US drone attack in the past 10 days and raised to at least 29 the number of alleged militants killed since the escalation began.

Back in Sanaa, there were worries that the multiple checkpoints, as well as tanks and soldiers surrounding government buildings and foreign embassies, were signals that the war with Al Qaeda in the countryside was spilling over into the capital. Those concerns were reinforced when an interior ministry official said earlier this week that some Al Qaeda operatives had already entered the city.

Marwin Sabri, a father of four children, warned that Yemen could buckle under the weight of the drive by the US and its Yemeni government allies to hunt down members of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).

“Yemen is weak and foreign powers like the US will benefit from that even if it means damaging the country,” said Mr Sabri, facing an immediate quandary yesterday. “It’s Eid and I want to take my children out to play, but at the same time I don’t want them to see the weapons everywhere and anger in the streets.”

An atmosphere of siege has set in on the capital, after staff at the US and British embassies were evacuated following reports of a threatened attack that prompted Washington to temporarily close 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.

The closures were reportedly triggered by the interception of a secret message between Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri and Nasser Al Wahishi, the leader of Aqap, about plans for a major attack. For their part, Yemeni authorities said on Wednesday that they had uncovered Al Qaeda plots to target foreign embassies and international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

Some of those allegations, issued by government spokesmen, were later denied by the state news agency, reinforcing recent suggestions that the drone war is eroding the credibility of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The US has given $150 million (Dh550m) to Yemen in recent years, most of it to fund training by US special forces for Yemen’s counter-terrorism units. The focus of Yemeni-US cooperation is a joint command centre in Yemen, where officials from both countries evaluate intelligence and choose how and when to launch drone strikes against alleged Al Qaeda operatives.

Growing jittery about the domestic consequences of the close Yemeni-US cooperation in the escalating drone war, government officials confirmed that two of those killed in yesterday’s attack were civilians. One of the officials acknowledged that this was not unusual.

“It has become common that civilians are killed when drones target suspected Al Qaeda fighters in Mareb,” said a senior security official in Mareb who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That is why the names of those killed in strikes are rarely released. It’s because the government sometimes does not know who is killed.”

The stepped-up drone operations have revived a debate here about their legality and aim. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman said yesterday that the joint US-Yemeni drone operations breached international law. “They are degrading to all Yemenis and a clear human rights violation,” Ms Karman said.

AbdulSalam Mohammed, president of the Abaad Research Centre, said the Obama administration’s assessment of Aqap’s strength and the latest upswing in drone attacks is driven by an ulterior motive.

“Al Qaeda today is not the powerful network of yesterday and they have been weakened to a great extent,” Mr Mohammed said. “We believe the US is exaggerating the Al Qaeda file to strengthen its foreign policy in the region.”

* With additional reporting by Associated Press.

US Drone Strikes Fueling Backlash in Yemen Over Civilian Deaths
Jason Ditz /

(August 8, 2013) — A problem as old as the US drone wars themselves is the lack of information from the administrations about who they’re actually killing. Occasionally we hear a name, when officials think they got someone they were hoping to get, but the vast majority of victims remain anonymous, usually dubbed “suspects” by compliant allies.

Locals in Abyan Province tell stories of the US drone campaign against them in 2012, when the Yemeni military was retaking the town from militants and the US was providing drone support. Large numbers of people were killed, but “who” was mostly left unstated at the time.

Mohammed Bagash, a mechanic in Jaar, describes losing his 8-year-old daughter to a drone strike. [See story below.] A drone hit a hospital near where they were, and he and his children fled to a nearby school to hide in the basement. Another drone hit the school, killing his daughter and wounding his son. Several other children were injured as well.

Such stories are almost cliche at this point, as years of pounding Pakistan and Yemen have left scores of such shattered families with grudges against the US. Such killings have provided fertile ground for al-Qaeda’s recruiting.

And as the US escalates into Yemen, the concern of many Yemenis is not with al-Qaeda but with the US itself, as they have seen what the US drone campaign has done to families in Abyan and Maarib and fret what may happen as it expands nationwide.

Why Drone Attacks in Yemen Are Like ‘Trying to Hit a Ghost’
Yalda Hakim / BBC World News

(August 7, 2013) — US drone strikes have been effective in killing senior al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen but innocent civilians have also died, raising tensions in the impoverished and fragile country. The streets of the coastal town of Zinjibar in southern Yemen are reduced to rubble. Buildings are bombed out. This town was on the front line of a battle between the Yemeni army and al-Qaeda in June 2012.

Government forces prevailed and one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoots – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – slunk into the shadows. But it remains dangerous. Al-Qaeda cells still operate here and there is also the risk of bandits who rob and kidnap.

‘They Think We’re Rats’
In a safe house with guards stationed outside, Mohammed Ahmad Bagash, a mechanic from the nearby town of Jaar, tells me his story. Mr Bagash has a question for the person who ordered the drone strike: “What did my daughter ever do to them? She was only eight years old.”

And then a bleak observation. “They think we’re rats. We’re not. We’re human beings.”

Fighting a ‘Ghost’
There is little public support for al-Qaeda on the streets of Zinjibar, but plenty of anger over the strategy used to fight them.

“Show the world. Show the world what the government has done,” said one man. “They bomb here but they’re trying to hit a ghost.”

During the fighting, al Qaeda fighters stored ammunition in the local hospital against the wishes of the doctors. After the hospital was hit by a missile strike, Mohammed and his two children ran to a school and hid in the basement. But then the school was hit in a suspected drone strike.

“It was as if everyone was burning. It was all dark,” said Mr Bagash. “When the smoke cleared, I saw my son’s leg was bleeding, and my daughter was hit on the back of the head,” he said.

He carried both children out. His son survived but his eight-year-old daughter bled to death on the way to the hospital. “As she bled, she went yellow. She actually started to shrink in my arms,” he said.

Several other children were injured in the attack. And then another man joins the conversation. I ask him who he blames for the destruction of his town.

“Al-Qaeda are responsible for this and the nations that fund them,” he said. “But also the drones, they are killing our people, killing our children and destroying our homes. The drones don’t differentiate between people. They kill people.”

Locals like Mr Bagash are caught in the middle of a battle for the heart and soul of Yemen. The Yemeni government, with US support, wants to eradicate al-Qaeda but since the militants live among the people, innocent civilians are also at risk.

Facts and figures are hard to come by as the US does not comment publicly on its drone policy, but according to the New America Foundation, a US think tank, the number of US drone strikes tripled in Yemen between 2011 and 2012.

In 2012, the US carried out more drone strikes in Yemen than anywhere else.

It is a remote automated war for the United States where the strikes have been successful in taking out al-Qaeda’s leadership. But for Yemenis, it is terror from the air.

Questions of Legitimacy
And a young Yemeni democracy campaigner has a worrying message for Washington. “The US thinks it understands Yemen but the drones have been one of the most effective tools for AQAP to succeed in Yemen,” said Farea al-Muslimi. “A big part of al-Qaeda power at the moment is convincing Yemenis that they are in a war with America, (that) America is attacking the sovereignty of Yemen and this government is non-legitimate.”

Mr. al-Muslimi is one of the most pro-American voices in Yemen. He testified in front of a US Senate committee in a personal capacity after his own village was struck by a drone. He thinks the US is wrong to stay silent when civilians are being killed in targeted strikes.

“You’re killing civilians for no reason,” said Mr al-Muslimi. “And you’re not even going to say sorry after that or admit it, or issue an apology, or pay compensation?”

One man waiting for an apology is Ahmed al-Sabooly from Radda in southern Yemen. After saying goodbye to his father, mother and sister as they left to visit the local health clinic last September, he headed out to work in the fields. At 3pm, he heard a buzzing noise in the sky and says he saw a drone.

“There was a big blast. There was another big blast and I saw dust rising in the air.”

He jumped on his motorbike to go see what had happened. When he got there, he found that two missiles had hit a truck. “The car was upside down and on fire. I looked in the car and I saw my mum, dad and sister,” he said. “They were burned so badly I could see their bones. My sister was still in my mother’s arms.”

The target was probably a local al-Qaeda leader who had been seen earlier travelling on the same stretch of road. Thirteen civilians were killed.

“My sister was so excited about going out that morning so she wore a brand new dress,” said Mr al-Sabooly. “I never thought it would be the last time I saw her.”

He blames the US government for the drone strikes. “They’re the ones who have these weapons. They’re the ones who have drones hovering over our village.” And Mr al-Sabooly wants justice. “I want a trial and I want them prosecuted for the crimes they’ve committed,” he said.

US officials conceded that Radda was a US strike in an off-the-record quote given to the Washington Post. But there was no apology and in its absence, the Yemeni government paid $75,000 in blood money to the families.

‘No Alternative’
Yemen’s government says all means are necessary to root out al-Qaeda, even if the US drone strikes are rallying support for the militant group.

“I’ve heard this argument, there might be some truth to it,” said Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. “But if your targets are al-Qaeda leaders and if they are endangering the security of your country, there’s no alternative.” And it seems there is no alternative for Mr Bagash or Mr al-Sabooly.

They must go about their daily lives in southern Yemen as the US tries to target the al-Qaeda militants in their midst. “We have been living in constant fear, fear from the drone strikes, and fear from the air strikes,” said Mr Bagash. “You never know when your house will be hit.”

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