February 19, 2014

II. The Attack

Residents show a remnant from one of the US Hellfire missiles that struck a wedding procession outside Rad`a, Yemen on December 12, 2013. © 2013 Nasser al-San`a

The families of the bride and groom feasted on a luncheon of roasted lamb at the home of the bride’s parents.[18] They recited traditional wedding poems and chewed qat.[19] Then many of the men and a small number of women piled into vehicles to escort the newlyweds to a customary second celebration in the groom’s village, a 35-kilometer drive along an isolated mountain road.[20]

Eleven cars, sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks were in the procession, and the mood among the 50 to 60 travelers was festive, said Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, a local sheikh and who was driving one of the vehicles. According to al-Tisi, the gaiety continued even as the recognizable buzz of a remotely piloted drone persisted overhead. “Everyone was happy; everyone was celebrating the wedding,” he said. “Then the strike turned happiness to grief.”[21]

Halfway through the journey, as the procession paused to await a car that had a flat tire, the drone’s volume increased, al-Tisi said.[22] Soon after, at 4:30 p.m., the missiles struck in quick succession. One missile hit the fourth vehicle in the procession, a 2005 Toyota Hilux pickup truck, but not before three or four men inside the pickup had jumped out and fled, apparently alerted by the drone’s increased buzz, he said.[23] Three other missiles hit near the car that was struck, sending shrapnel through four nearby vehicles and killing and wounding passengers inside them.[24]

The strike, on December 12, 2013 in Aqabat Za`j, a district northeast of the central Yemeni city of Rad`a, killed at least 12 men ages 20 to 65 and wounded at least 15 others, according to survivors, relatives of the dead, civil society members, and multiple media reports. The relatives said the dead included the son of the groom from his previous marriage. They said shrapnel grazed the bride under one eye, and blew her trousseau to pieces. [25]

The Washington Post attributed the attack to Hellfire missiles and identified the strike as a JSOC operation.[26] A Human Rights Watch arms expert also identified photos of the remnants as Hellfire missiles.

Conflicting accounts of those killed and wounded quickly emerged. Unnamed US and Yemeni government officials told the media that all those killed were militants, including an AQAP member on Yemen’s most-wanted list. Yemen government sources told Human Rights Watch that civilians were among the dead. (See following chapter.) Relatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that all those killed or wounded were civilians.

Rad`a and surrounding tribal lands are largely outside the central government’s control, and AQAP members have frequently staged attacks against Yemeni troops in the area.[27] 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.

Al-Tisi, the sheikh, showed Human Rights Watch five scars on his legs, head, and one hand that he described as shrapnel wounds from the strike. He said his son Ali Abdullah, a 36-year-old father of three who had been a soldier, was among the dead:

Blood was everywhere, the bodies of the people who were killed and injured were scattered everywhere…. I saw the missile hit the car that was just behind the car driven by my son. I went there to check on my son. I found him tossed to the side. I turned him over and he was dead. He was struck in his face, neck, and chest. My son, Ali![28]


Survivors took the wounded and the bodies of 11 of the dead to Rad`a, a 35-kilometer, 90-minute drive along a dirt road from the strike area.[29] Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani, a local sheikh, said he received the injured at a Rad`a hospital. He said three men died in the hospital and that six others were seriously wounded, including a man who lost one eye, another who lost his genitals, and others who had lost a leg or hand.[30]

Nasser al-San`a, a journalist from Rad`a, reached the hospital and also counted six seriously wounded men. He showed Human Rights Watch videos he took of several bloodied men at the hospital, as well as charred bodies of the dead.[31]

Relatives told Human Rights Watch that all of those killed were from the al-`Amri and al-Tisi families from the Yakla area of al-Bayda province. They said most worked as migrant laborers in neighboring Saudi Arabia, herded sheep, or farmed qat—a substance of which AQAP disapproves. One, `Aref Ahmed al-Tisi, 28, had cared for a blind father, a wife, and seven children, including a son who had been born less than two weeks before his death, according to a relative and al-San`a, who showed Human Rights Watch video footage he had taken of al-Tisi’s father and children after the attack.[32]

Videos of Jishm Yakla, the home village of several of the men killed, showed a barren landscape dotted with stone huts. The village had no electricity or basic services. Another video showed the groom, Abdullah Mabkhut al-`Amri, 60, raising his hands to the sky, and saying:

We were in a wedding, 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?[33]

Enraged, relatives and other local residents took the bodies as well as the broken pieces of the bride’s wooden armoire and displayed them in the provincial capital, Rad`a. Armed protesters blocked the main thoroughfare from Rad`a to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, 150 kilometers northwest, for more than 24 hours.[34]

Ahmad Muhammad al-Tisi of Yakla holds a photo of his son `Aref Ahmad Muhammad al-Tisi, 28, who was killed in a US drone strike outside Rad`a, Yemen on December 12, 2013. © 2013 Nasser al-San`a

Video clips of the protest show angry tribesmen waving banners and chanting slogans denouncing the US and Yemeni governments. “The US is committing bloodshed!” one man shouted. “Who will stand against it?”[35]

Al-Tisi was among several residents who demanded an international investigation into the attack, saying he did not trust the United States to carry out an impartial inquiry:

The US government killed innocent people. This was an immense mistake, rejected by the God and His Prophet. They turned many kids into orphans, many wives into widows. Many were killed and many others injured. … Where is the concern for human rights?

The Dead and Wounded

Relatives provided Human Rights Watch the following lists of the dead and seriously wounded, all from villages in and around Yakla.

The Dead[36]

  1. Hussein Muhammad Saleh al-`Amri, 37
  2. Muhammad Ali Mes`ad al-`Amri, 34
  3. Ali Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, 36
  4. Zaidan Muhammad al-`Amri, 34
  5. Shaif Abdullah Mohsen Mabkhut al-`Amri, 22
  6. Hussein Muhammad al-Tomil al-Tisi, 65
  7. Motlaq Hamoud Muhammad al-Tisi, 41
  8. Saleh Abdullah Mabkhut al-`Amri, 30
  9. `Aref Ahmad Muhammad al-Tisi, 28
  10. Saleh Mes`ad Abdullah al-`Amri, 30
  11. Mes`ad Dhaifallah Hussein al-`Amri, 25
  12. Salem Muhammad Ali al-Tisi, 31

The Seriously Wounded[37]

  1. Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, 52, multiple shrapnel wounds
  2. Muhammad Ali Abdullah al-`Amri, 45, multiple shrapnel wounds
  3. Naif Abdullah Ali al-Tisi, 30, lost vision in one eye, broken leg
  4. Muhammad Ali Ahmad al-`Amri, 40, lost body parts including part of one leg
  5. Nasser Ali Ahmad al-`Amri, 36, wounded in the back, leg
  6. Abdullah Aziz Mabkhot, 30, broken hand and leg

[18] This account is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with eight relatives of those killed in the strike, including two who were in the procession and witnessed the strike, as well as two journalists and two human rights defenders who visited the scene. The interviews were carried out between January 11 and 16, 2014 in Sanaa, and by telephone and email from New York, December 14, 2013, and January 27 to February 2, 2014.

[19] Ibid. Qat is a mild narcotic. Chewing qat is legal and a common pastime in Yemen.

[20] Two relatives, Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani and Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri, said a small number of women were in the procession in addition to the bride.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, Sanaa, January 11, 2014.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. A senior Yemeni government official with knowledge of the attack, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was informed that four men fled, but did not name them. Human Rights Watch interviews with a witness and a Yemeni government official, Sanaa, January 11-16, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Human Rights Watch interviews with eight relatives of those killed in the strike: Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi; Saleh Mohsen al- `Amri ; Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi; Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani; Talib Ahmad al-Tisi; Saleh Hussein Muhammad al- `Amri; and Aziz Mabkhut al-`Amry; all interviewed January 11, 2014, and Ali al-`Amri , interviewed by telephone from Sanaa to Rad`a, Human Rights Watch also confirmed this information with human rights defender Baraa Shaiban of Reprieve, Sanaa, January 11, 2014, and Yemeni journalist Nasser al-San`a, Sanaa, January 16, 2014, both of whom visited the scene.

[26]Greg Miller, “Lawmakers Seek to Stymie Plan to Shift Control of Drone Campaign from CIA to Pentagon,” Washington Post, January 15, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/lawmakers-seek-to-stymie-plan-to-shift-control-of-drone-campaign-from-cia-to-pentagon/2014/01/15/c0096b18-7e0e-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html (accessed January 15, 2014).

[27] See, e.g., “Soldier killed and another wounded in attack launched by unknown gunmen on security checkpoint in al Bayda,” al Masdar Online, January 31, 2014 (Ar). http://almasdaronline.com/article/54222(accessed February 2, 2014).

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Abdullah al-Tisi, Sanaa, January 11, 2014.

[29] Ali Abdullah al-Tisi was buried in his home village of Jishm Yakla, his father told Human Rights Watch.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani, Sanaa, January 11, 2014.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Nasser al-San`a, Sanaa, January 16, 2014.

[32] Human Rights Watch interviews with relative Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi, Sanaa, January 11, 2014, and al-San`a, Sanaa, January 16, 2014.

[33] Video of Abdullah Mabkhut al-`Amri, copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[34] Human Rights Watch interviews with relatives and government officials. See also “Yemen tribe intensifies protest against drone attacks,” Oman Tribune, December 14, 2013, http://www.omantribune.com/index.php?page=news&id=157492&heading=Middle%20East (accessed February 2, 2014).

[35] Video of demonstration in Rad`a, December 13, 2013. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[36] The dead were identified by relatives Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi; Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri; Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi; Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani; Talib Ahmad al-Tisi; Saleh Hussein Muhammad al-`Amri ; and Aziz Mabkhut al-`Amri; all interviewed January 11, 2014, and Ali al-`Amri, interviewed by telephone from Sanaa to Rad`a, February 2, 2014. Many of the ages are approximate, as Yemenis often do not have birth records and not all relatives were certain of birth dates.

[37] Names and conditions of the wounded provided by Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani, who received the injured at the hospital; Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri; and journalists who visited the scene, January 11 and February 2, 2014.