‘The strike targeted civilians by mistake’
Following a drone strike that hit a wedding convoy in the Ra’ada district in Al-Beidha governorate on Dec. 11, the controversy surrounding the use of drones as a means to combat terrorism has resurfaced. The attack, in which 12 people died and eight others were injured, has reinvigorated anti-drone activists’ arguments that the technology is not accurate enough nor the policy governing the strikes transparent enough. While both the U.S. and Yemeni governments have partnered in the so-called war on terror and endorsed the use of drones, examples like the December strike are forcing citizens and activists alike to press their leaders for answers. The Yemeni government has said that the strike in Al-Beidha targeted Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) affiliates. Mohammed Al-Bashiri, the secretary general of Al-Salam Party, the first political party established following the 2011 uprising, has been an outspoken opponent of drone strikes. In an interview with the Yemen Times, he along with Abdulrazaq Al-Jamal, an expert specializing in Al-Qaeda affairs, discuss the legal and moral implications of extrajudicial killings.
Let’s start with Mr. Al-Bashiri. How did you react to the news that a drone strike had targeted a wedding convoy, claiming a dozen lives?
Al-Bashiri: First of all, I offer my condolences to the victims’ families. I also offer my condolences to the families of those who have perished in previous strikes and express my deep sorrow to the Yemeni people in general. Second, I feel extreme…anger regarding what has happened. The government and the president should take decisive action [against these strikes] even if they have signed agreements to allow American drones to target Al-Qaeda. Where is Al-Qaeda? I do not think it exists. Even if it exists, did the Americans not create it? So now they want to get rid of it. Why are we even involved in this issue?
Let us shift to Mr. Al-Jamal. Is this last strike in Al-Beidha different from previous drone strikes?
Al-Jamal: I think there is no difference between the raid that targeted the wedding convoy in Ra’ada and the previous raids that targeted Al-Qaeda and any Yemeni [citizens]. American [spying] and shelling, in principle, is wrong because it kills illegally and without trial. I cannot differentiate between strikes that target Al-Qaeda members and strikes that [might] target citizens because these strikes are [made outside of the legal system]. I disagree with those who differentiate between them because it is a violation of Yemeni sovereignty to kill [any Yemeni citizens, be they Al-Qaeda members or not]. I disagree with Al-Bashiri that Al-Qaeda does not exist.
What is some of the most significant information that you have learned about the last strike in Al-Beidha?
Al-Jamal: The Yemeni government claimed that some leading Al-Qaeda figures were targeted in the wedding convoy. In fact, no Al-Qaeda affiliate was targeted. The strike targeted civilians by mistake.
Why are people angry now? There have been many previous strikes.
Al-Bashiri: Drones have [recently] been storming targets randomly without any regard for civilians.
Official Yemeni media outlets have reported the killing of leading Al-Qaeda figures [in various strikes]. To what degree is this true?
Al-Jamal: The Yemeni government has reported the names of Al-Qaeda [operatives] who were targeted in American drone strikes. Later on, it turns out that those named are still alive. This is not the first time that the Yemeni government has attempted to cover up crimes committed by American drones in Yemen by falsely publishing names of dead Al-Qaeda [operatives]. In the end, we found this information to be false.
On what [intelligence] do the Americans base [their] strikes?
Al-Jamal: [The Americans] rely on the monitoring of the Yemeni security forces and the coordinates that they supply, as well as on spies who install electronic chips in suspects’ cars.
Do American drones rely [solely] on information provided by Yemeni intelligence apparatuses and security authorities?
Al-Jamal: The Yemeni security authorities are not alone in providing information. There are many sides that compete to earn American loyalty through offers of information. This leads us to pose the question, ‘What is the role of local Yemeni leadership?’ I think they do not play a role in terms of this issue. Since 2011 there have been numerous occasions when people have taken to the streets to protest American drone attacks, but the protests were not united. I think that the silence of the Yemeni government is somewhat excusable if we compare its silence to the lack of popular participation. I believe that if there was popular pressure, the situation would have [already] changed.
Do you think the stance of Parliament [who in a non-binding statement called for an end to drone attacks in Yemen’s airspace] regarding the latest drone strike was adequate?
Al-Bashiri: The Parliament represents the people. I think it has played its role. What is missing is the role of civil society organizations and political parties.
Some people hold tribes that protect Al-Qaeda affiliates responsible. What do you think?
Al-Bashiri: I may agree, but I call on all tribesmen to inform the security apparatus about any Al-Qaeda affiliates. [This may prevent] American drones from targeting [civilians].
What about you, Mr. Al-Jamal?
Al-Jamal: I don’t think that American drones are [stopping tribes from] protecting Al-Qaeda members as [drones] may cause several tribes to [actually] join Al-Qaeda. I think that if American drones continue to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and kill civilians, the tribes will not only protect Al-Qaeda affiliates but will join Al-Qaeda themselves. Seeking help from American drones [instead of handling Al-Qaeda itself] proves that the Yemeni government is a failed one.
State-run media reports on [aerial] strikes carried out by Yemen’s Air Force against Al-Qaeda’s strongholds. So what is the need for American airstrikes?
Al-Jamal: Yemen’s Air Force is not able to target Al-Qaeda. Since 2002 they have not carried out any successful airstrikes against Al-Qaeda affiliates even when Al-Qaeda affiliates were controlling Abyan governorate and were relatively easier to target. However, this doesn’t mean that the Americans are entitled to carry out airstrikes.
Do you think that the Yemeni Air Force’s inability to target Al-Qaeda affiliates justifies the use of American drones?
Al-Jamal: No, nothing can justify permitting the Americans to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and illegally kill Yemeni citizens without any court proceedings. It doesn’t matter whether they are Al-Qaeda affiliates, leading Al-Qaeda figures or non-Yemeni residents.
As a politician, what have you done concerning the ongoing killing of Yemenis in American airstrikes?
Al-Bashiri: We have condemned this and called on the government to take the necessary legal steps, either through the [U.N.] Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly or the Arab League.
It is well know that the Americans carry out their strikes in collaboration with Yemeni authorities. Do you think that the state was forced to enter into such an agreement?
Al-Bashiri: The state is obliged to do so because it is weak, but people do not accept [the continuation of these strikes].
Do you have any information concerning an agreement [between the governments]?
Al-Jamal: There is an international agreement centered around counterterrorism, but this does not give permission to the U.S to kill civilians. Only 10 raids were carried out by the American drone program during [former President Ali Abdulla Saleh’s rule]. In contrast, [many more] airstrikes have taken place over the past two years. What is the benefit of the 2011 revolution against the former regime if the current regime will use the same excuses? The new rulers have made [even] more concessions to the U.S than the former regime did in order to gain power. As far as I know, no agreement was signed with America regarding drone strikes during the former regime’s rule. [Strikes were allowed] based on personal permission from the former president, Ali Abdulla Saleh.
Have American airstrikes reduced Al-Qaeda’s ability to function in Yemen?
Al-Jamal: No, they have not, and the current situation proves that. The number of American raids have increased and so have Al-Qaeda’s activities.
Do you think Washington [uses the excuse of] political unrest in Yemen to intensify its airstrikes and that the Yemeni government will stop them when the situation stabilizes?
Al-Bashiri: I don’t think so.
Do your roles begin and end with denunciation and condemnation?
Al-Bashiri: Definitely not. We have called on the government to meet the people’s demands and ban drone strikes. [If this does not happen], all [political] parties should rise up against the government.
What role does society play in regard to the ongoing American airstrikes in Yemen?
Al-Jamal: A political decree to ban drone strikes will not be issued without societal pressure on the state.