On 23 July, Abdelela Shayie, a Yemeni journalist was pardoned by Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Shayie has been known for revealing the US involvement in a deadly strike in al-Majalah in the southern province of Abyan by taking pictures of remnants of US Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, some of them even bearing the label “made in the USA.” Soon after his revelations, Shayie was jailed on charges of helping al-Qaeda. Shayie received international attention when US President Barack Obama put pressure on former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 not to release him. The case of Shayie is a clear example of the Obama administration attempting to cover up the deadly effects of US strikes in Yemen.
Estimation of casualties US strikes
As strikes occur in remote areas, with the Yemeni government’s attempt to redirect attention away from strikes, it has been a challenge for international media to report on them. However, the UK-based independent not-for-profit organisation Bureau of Investigative Journalism provides records based on US and Yemeni government reports, military and intelligence officials and credible media and academic sources. Having studied the records of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it is a conservative estimate by Beyond Violence that US strikes from drones, aircrafts and ships from 2002 to 2013 have caused at least 733 casualties and 144 injured. These 733 casualties include at least 123 civilians. Although the first US strike took place on 3 November 2002, strikes targeting leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) placed on the USA’s ‘kill or capture-list’ were stepped up at the end of 2009. Around this time, AQAP gained global attention after claiming responsibility for the failed Christmas Day attack on a flight bound to Boston on 28 December 2009 and its attempt to put two plastic explosives on separate cargo flights bound to the US on 6 November 2010.
Deadly strike in al-Majalah
The deadliest US strike in Yemen happened in al-Majalah on 17 December 2009. Its targets were three alleged AQAP leaders, including Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri who was accused of having organised a suicide attack on Spanish tourists in 2007 and suspected of planning an attack against the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. According to an investigation by a Yemeni parliamentary commission, a cruise missile launched by a US warship or submarine killed 55 people including 41 civilians. In his testimonial before an US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 23 April, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni youth activist and freelance journalist discussed the eyewitness accounts he had collected from al-Majalah. He testified how a person who tried to rescue people after the attack told him that the bodies of the victims were so decimated “that it was impossible to differentiate between the children, the women and their animals.” As a result of this, some victims “were buried in the same grave as animals.” In the months and years following the US attack on al-Majalah, cluster bombs carried out by the cruise missile claimed the life of three other civilians and injured nine. According to a report by the Swiss-based human rights organisation Alkarama published on 3 June 2013, “the affected area to this day remains extremely dangerous due to the munitions that did not detonate on impact.”
Implications of US strikes
Although the strike in al-Majalah has been by far the deadliest, other strikes (a large majority of them conducted by drones) have had huge consequences for the population. Besides the casualties, houses have been damaged and civilians have been injured by fragments of missiles. As the injured can often not be treated domestically given the poor medical facilities in Yemen, some families were forced to use all their savings to provide medical care to their loved ones abroad. The strikes have also had a huge psychological effect, as the population in the affected areas are aware of the drone circling above their head always ready to fire. Adding up that the population does not know how to avoid the drones strikes since it is unknown who is on the USA’s ‘kill or capture list’, many have decided to flee their homes. According to the Emirati newspaper the National, approximately 40,000 people fled in June 2011 one of the most affected provinces (Abyan province) as a result of the drone strikes. In addition, the US strikes have been an effective recruitment tool for extremist organisations like al-Qaeda. Hamza Alshargabi, who publishes in his blog Late Night Surgery regularly on Yemen, has stated in a telephone interview with Beyond Violence that the strikes “cause anger and feelings of revenge against the perpetrators, creating new enemies.” When looking at the horrible images of the aftermath of the al-Majalah strike, it should not be surprising that extremist organisations will use this kind of material to stir up animosity towards the US.
With Alshargabi claiming among other insiders in Yemen that the main target of the al-Majalah attack (Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri) “could have easily been captured,” it is questionable why the US uses strikes instead of other methods to target the leadership of AQAP. Taking into account the physical, material and psychological damage caused by the US drone strikes and the propaganda tools it gives organisations like al-Qaeda in hands, it is clear that the strikes are not only wrong from a moral but also from a pragmatic viewpoint. The Obama administration should realise that this is the road to nowhere, with every strike likely to create new enemies and the Yemeni population ending up as the main victims.
Gertjan Hoetjes is a freelance Journalist & Recruiter for Project Hope in the Netherlands.
Written by Gertjan Hoetjes and published on 02-September-2013