The United States military is increasing drone attacks in Yemen, and has had some success in striking their targets. Human rights campaigners, however, are deeply concerned by the policy and how many civilians have been killed. Others in the region argue that the program is hugely counter-productive.
US drones killed four suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen on Monday, local tribal sources told AFP. This is the third strike in the last eight days against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a primary US target. Two previous drone operations, on March 3 and 5, killed four more jihadists, according to the Long War Journal website.
A UN report on February 28 noted that the frequency of the drone strikes in Yemen intensified last year, “resulting in a significant number of reported civilian casualties in the final weeks of 2013.” The OHCHR document also stated: “Media monitoring organizations allege that between 24 and 71 civilians have been killed in confirmed drone strikes between 2009 and 2013.”
“There is a very strong increase,” Kat Craig, human rights lawyer and legal director at UK-based advocacy group Reprieve, told VICE News about drone strikes in Yemen. “It’s becoming a weapon of choice.”
Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur who led the OHCHR investigation, identified 30 attacks that killed or threatened civilians and that “imposed a duty on the relevant States to provide a public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force.”
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, written by senior terrorism researcher Letta Tayler, said the US has conducted 89 drone operations in Yemen since 2009, killing a total of 500 people.
On December 12, 2013, US drone strikes struck a wedding in Rad’a, central Yemen. The attack killed 12 people and injured at least 15 — including the bride — according to the HRW report, which noted "some, if not all” of the victims were civilians.
While popular among US lawmakers, the drone strategy faces increasing criticism from European politicians, the UN, and security analysts, who say the operations do not account for civilian casualties and are backfiring.
According to some in Yemen the strikes are turning more Yemenis against the US and isolating President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Yemen’s parliament voted to ban the air strikes in December, pushing back against Hadi’s support for the program. Meanwhile, AQAP is growing stronger and recruiting new members.
“US counter-terrorism policy in Yemen is on the whole counterproductive,” Will Picard, executive director of Yemen Peace Project, told VICE News. “The American strikes legitimize AQAP's primary narrative, which argues that the mujahideen are fighting to defend the people of Yemen and the sacred land of Arabia from American invasion.”
“I don't trust the Yemeni or US government about whom they are killing,” Rooj Alwazir, co-founder of the Support Yemen media collective, told VICE News. “Time and time again they have lied to their citizens about who is killed and injured by these airstrikes.”
Tayler said that the US administration’s silence on the issue is not helping. “The US failure to address any harm to civilians also risks turning Yemeni allies into enemies.”
US officials typically do not comment on the drone program, dismissing civilian casualties as minor. “The drone policy of this government has been exceptionally precise. All of these accusations ad infinitum by those that are opposed to the interests of the United States about how many civilian casualties occur from these strikes… That is not accurate,” said Senator Bill Nelson during a rare public discussion of the drone program at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on January 29.