Hard on the heels of its report into six US targeted killings in Yemen in 2009 and 2012-13, Human Rights Watch has published a detailed analysis by Letta Tayler of another drone strike carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) against a wedding convoy on 12 December 2013. According to Greg Miller in the Washington Post,
The report represents the most detailed independent examination to date of a strike that has focused attention on the administration’s struggles to tighten the rules for targeted killing, provide more information about such operations to the public and gradually shift full control of the drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon.
There is considerable evidence of covert US-Pakistan co-operation in targeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see here and here), but in the case of Yemen the collaboration is more overt and perhaps even more formalised: Yemen’s President described a ‘joint operations room’, including agents/officers from the US, the UK, NATO and Yemen that ‘identifies in advance’ prospective targets (who are usually described as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
In this case, as in so many others, the United States has insisted that all those killed were terrorists, but HRW’s on-the-ground interviews (and videos) tell a different story. After a wedding feast at the home of the bride, many of the men and some of the women jumped into their vehicles to escort the bridal couple to a second celebration at in the groom’s village of al Jashem 35 km away.
At 4.30 that afternoon four Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others – who are named and identified in the HRW report, and according to relatives all civilians.
‘We were in a wedding,’ cried the groom, ‘but all of a sudden it became a funeral. …We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?’
The US isn’t saying, and HRW notes that accounts from the government of Yemen have been inconsistent – though the local governor an military commander apologies for the killings, describing them as ‘a mistake’. Some reports agreed that some of those targeted were Al-Qaeda members – though if so, it seems they escaped: AQAP has not identified ‘martyrs’ lost in the attack, which is its invariable practice – and some claimed that the victims included ‘smugglers and arms dealers’.
But they also all made it clear that this was a wedding convoy that was targeted, and the government of Yemen has made compensation payments to the families.
HRW discusses the implications of the killings under the different legal regimes of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) and international human rights law, but also notes that the attack seems to have violated the protocols set out by the Obama administration in May 2013. These included the ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured…’
NBC – which also has video of the aftermath of the strike – reported in January that the Obama administration was carrying out an ‘internal investigation’, but nothing has been forthcoming and questions from HRW were rebuffed. All we have so far is this extraordinary statement, reported by Rooj Alwazir for al Jazeera:
“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.
‘Broadly speaking’, what is it about weddings that those carrying out air strikes don’t understand?
It’s not difficult to imagine what those who attended the wedding will remember of that day. But in case it is, Reprieve (which carried out its own investigation into the strike) has published photographs of some of the victims and their families – and of a funeral of nine people.
UPDATE: AP is now carrying sketchy information about the official investigation into the strike:
Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani — twice — and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit…
Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, ordered an independent investigation by an Air Force general and the White House requested another by the National Counterterrorism Center. Both concluded no civilians were killed. Votel’s staff also showed lawmakers video of the operation. Two U.S. officials who watched the video and were briefed on the investigations said it showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men.
The report provides no basis for the identification of the victims as non-civilians. Human Rights Watch had already questioned the presence of armed men as indicative:
‘Nearly everyone in the procession was an adult male, and one Yemeni government source said many of the men carried military assault rifles. But these details do not necessarily point to involvement in violent militancy. Yemeni weddings are segregated, including the traditional journey to bring the bride to her new home. And Yemeni men commonly travel with assault rifles in tribal areas, including in wedding processions, when celebratory gunshots are common.’
But here is the final Catch-22:
The officials said the Pentagon can’t release details [of the strike or the investigation] because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.