Now the Strike Will Take His Legs
Adam Rawnsley / The Daily Beast
Adel al-Manthari is the sole survivor of a March 2018 American drone strike in Yemen that killed his four cousins and sentenced him to a lifetime of severe health problems. For just a fraction of the cost of one of the $150,000 missiles that an American drone fired at his family, the Defense Department could pay for the complicated surgery Manthari’s doctors say he needs to keep his legs.
But that would require the Pentagon to do something that so far it has so far refused to do in Yemen: admit it made a mistake and killed civilians who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Manthari, like a number of other victims of US drone strikes in Yemen, has spent the past four years trying to clear his family’s name, get the US to apologize, and compensate his family for his injuries and the death of his four cousins—all to no avail.
But as his medical condition has deteriorated and threatened to deprive him of the limited mobility he still enjoys, Manthari’s efforts to get compensated and clear his family’s name have taken on new urgency. Medical records he shared with The Daily Beast show he now “requires surgical intervention in [a] specialized hospital” which is unavailable in Yemen, according to his doctors.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Manthari says he struggles “medically, physically, and psychologically” with the aftermath of the strike but that his condition has been getting worse, especially over the last few weeks. “I don’t leave the house at all. My children have had to leave their school in order to look after me. I haven’t left the house since 2018,” he said.
“I had nothing to do with this. I had no connection to anyone. I was just a civil servant in the government,” he said. “Because of this I have lost everything.”
On Tuesday, The Daily Beast asked US Central Command why the US targeted the Mantharis’ vehicle, what a “credibility assessment” officials announced in the wake of the attack had concluded about the strike, and whether officials were prepared to offer compensation.
A Centcom spokesperson wrote that the Pentagon would not have a response ready before The Daily Beast’s deadline and that a Freedom of Information Act request would likely be necessary. (The Daily Beast has filed a FOIA request.) As of publication time, Centcom did not provide answers to the questions submitted earlier this week.
In a letter sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week, Reprieve, a human rights nonprofit which represents Manthari, asked for the Pentagon to “urgently re-open the assessment into civilian casualties in this strike and specifically his status as a civilian injured” and “provide Mr. Al Manthari with emergency medical evacuation to Egypt and the funds he needs to obtain that life-saving treatment.”
Manthari’s struggle to get the US to reconsider the intelligence that led Air Force personnel to try and kill him highlights the difficulty that many of those affected by America’s wars face in trying to hold the world’s most powerful military to account for their targeting decisions. The lingering health problems Manthari faces also highlights how the cost of the military’s targeting decisions can still accumulate long after people find themselves in the crosshairs of American air power.
The years since have been a constant struggle for Manthari, one which is far from over. In 2018, he managed to piece together the nearly $15,000 necessary to travel to Egypt for painful skin grafts and other specialist medical care in 2018 and 2019 from loans and family.
“I suffered severe burns on my legs and arms. I also suffered a breakage in the pelvis which is now hindering my ability to move,” he says.
But he still hasn’t been able to pay off the debt from his last surgeries and he can’t afford the fasciotomy surgery his doctors think could help relieve the pressure and swelling in his legs and save them from amputation—something he hopes compensation from the US could do.
There are psychological scars, too. His daughters were 10 and 14 years old when the drone strike hit their father. “My children have had to leave their school in order to look after me,” he says. They’re aware of what happened but he doesn’t discuss the day of the strike much with his family. “It’s a very painful experience.”
It’s not hard to figure out why. On the day of the strike, Manthari looked around the burning Toyota and saw his cousin Abdullah, who he described as “a pleasant man with very high morals” who “was humble and always had a smile on his face,” cut in half and beheaded. He saw Mohammed lying with his legs missing and Salem, his cousins who had grown up together in the same village, slumped over. All three were dead.
He and his cousin Nasser managed to make it free of the vehicle as local men ran over to drag them out of the vehicle and rush them to a hospital. Manthari lived. Nasser died after a two-week struggle in the hospital.
A number of organizations have come forward to vouch for the Manthari family’s innocence, but the Defense Department has refused to budge and admit any error.
The Mantharis have long maintained that the five men in the Toyota Land Cruiser struck by an American drone that day in Yemen’s Bayda governorate were driving to the village of al-Aqla to serve as witnesses for a land deal.
Investigations by Mwatana, a Yemen-based human rights group, the Associated Press, the investigative journalism outlet AirWars and Yemeni tribal leaders have all concluded that there is no evidence to link the Al Manthari family to AQAP, as the Pentagon initially claimed.
Egypt, a close US ally which is known to detain, torture, and even execute Islamists, twice allowed Manthari to visit—once in 2018 and again in 2019—to receive medical care and physical therapy unavailable in Yemen, according to passport stamps seen by The Daily Beast.
In a rare move, a tribal council of elders from Yemen’s Al Sawma’ah District, where the strike took place, issued a joint statement shortly after the incident which asserted that the Manthari family “have no relationship with Al Qaeda or any other group” and demanded that the governor of the district investigate the attack.
And in March, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging that he investigate “credible reports of civilian harm,” which cited a Mwatana review identifying the Mantharis as civilians unaffiliated with AQAP.
In the face of claims that their strike had gone awry, US Central Command, the military command in charge of operations in the Middle East, pledged to conduct a “credibility assessment” of the strike. Since then, no one from the Defense Department has revealed what, if anything, that assessment determined.
In a 2019 report mandated by Congress, the Pentagon washed its hands of any culpability for killing noncombatants in Yemen in 2018. There were, it wrote, “no credible reports of civilian casualties from US military operations in Yemen or Libya” that year.
If the US were inclined to grant Manthari’s request, the money is available. In 2020 Congress gave the Defense Department an annual fund of $3 million to make these kinds of ex gratia payments.
But in its most recent report on civilian casualties, issued for the year 2020, “Not a single dollar was paid to victims” says Marc Garlasco, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who works as a military adviser for PAX for Peace, a nonprofit focused on civilian protection. “It is shockingly rare for the US to admit to civilian casualties,” whether from US drone strikes or crewed aircraft.
Garlsasco says non-governmental organizations are often more likely to determine that US airstrikes killed civilians than the Pentagon’s analysts in part because “the US stopped field investigations in 2014 and it has a poor record of cooperating with NGOs to take on clarifying information the US may not have access to.”
That’s true In Manthari’s case. In its letter to Secretary Austin, Reprieve wrote that, despite their willingness to meet with the Defense Department, “no one from the Department of Defense, or any other branch of the US Government, has ever contacted members of the victims’ families or witnesses to the strike.”
Though the US military killed his family members and sent him on a long and painful medical odyssey, Manthari expresses no hatred when prompted about his feelings towards the Pentagon.
“They should actually try to identify where the terrorist groups are and hit those targets but instead they use planes where they’re targeting peaceful residents on roads and that isn’t right,” he says.
Asked what he would like Americans to know about what their government is doing in Yemen, Manthari was emphatic. “People in Yemen are peaceful civilians,” he says. “This isn’t right. [The US] should treat us how they would want to be treated. They should know that we have kids and we want to live in dignity. We want to show our children that there’s a life full of education. Indiscriminate targeting isn’t correct.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.