February 19, 2014

III. The Alleged Target

US and Yemeni officials and relatives provided divergent and often contradictory accounts as to who was killed in the December 12 attack. US officials, speaking to the media on condition of anonymity, said that all those killed were militants. Yemeni government sources gave divergent accounts of civilian and militant deaths. Neither US nor Yemeni officials offered specific information to support their claims of a militant presence, although the laws of war require the attacker to establish that it is striking a valid military target.

Eight family members, In contrast, told Human Rights Watch that none of the people in the procession, including the dead and wounded, was engaged in any militant operations.

These discrepancies underscore the need for a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation into the strike.

US: All Killed Were Militants

The Associated Press quoted two unidentified US officials as saying said that all those killed in the December 12 attack were militants. [38] The officials said the target was an AQAP member named Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, whom they described as one of Yemen’s most-wanted terrorists and the ringleader of the plot that temporarily shuttered 22 US diplomatic posts worldwide in August 2013. Al-Badani, they said, was wounded in the attack but escaped. [39] According to a Yemeni official, al-Badani was from the city of Ibb, 180 kilometers southwest of the area of the strike. The official, as well as a Yemeni security analyst, confirmed that al-Badani was on Yemen’s “most-wanted” terrorist list. [40]

The security analyst, Abd al-Salam Muhammad, president of Yemen’s Abaad Studies and Research Center, told Human Rights Watch that al-Badani’s name had surfaced on militant chat sites after the December 12 attack as an “emir [leader] of Sanaa,” but that prior to that date, “most people had never heard of him.”[41]

US officials speaking on condition of anonymity told NBC News that the Obama administration was carrying out an internal review of the strike—a rare if unofficial acknowledgement of any action involving targeted killings.[42] However, the administration had not formally announced an investigation or publicly acknowledged the strike at the time of writing.[43] Nor has it released information, such as the videos that drones take during strikes.

In an email, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, instead referred Human Rights Watch to a statement of the Yemeni government that “those killed were dangerous senior al-Qa’ida militants.”[44]

Citing President Obama’s May 2013 speech on targeted attacks, Hayden wrote that the United States takes “extraordinary care” to ensure its strikes comply with domestic and international law as well as US policy. She added: “And when we believe that civilians may have been killed, we investigate thoroughly”—even though the findings are not public. “In situations where we have concluded that civilians have been killed,” she added, “the U.S. has made condolence payments where appropriate and possible.”[45]

In February 2013, the then-White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who is currently the CIA director, also said that the government reviews strikes, and if appropriate and feasible provides compensation, in the “rare instances” in which civilians are killed.[46]

Human Rights Watch has found no evidence of US investigations or payments to families in connection with the December 12 strike.

Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri of Yakla shows photos of nephew Shaif Abdullah Mohsen Mabkhut al-`Amri (left) and cousin Saleh Mes`ad Abdullah al-`Amri, who were killed in a US drone strike outside Rad`a, Yemen, on December 12, 2013. © 2013 Human Rights Watch

Varying Yemeni Accounts

Accounts from Yemeni government officials as to whether civilians were killed in the strike have shifted over time and have often been inconsistent.

The day after the attack, Yemen’s official SABA news agency released a statement that said the strike targeted a car that belonged to an Al-Qaeda “leader” and was carrying “many terrorist members and leaders who were involved in plotting attacks against armed forces, police, and vital public facilities.”[47] The statement, from an unnamed “official source” in the government’s Supreme Security Committee, made no mention of civilian casualties.

However, the following day, December 14, Gen. Ali Mohsen Mothana, commander of a military zone that includes al-Bayda, and al-Ghahiri al-Shadadi, the governor of al-Bayda, apologized for the killings in a public meeting in Rad`a, calling them a “mistake.” [48] The families agreed to no further disruptions for one month in exchange for mediation on their demands to prosecute those responsible for the strike and stop drone flights over their villages. [49] Residents later said that the drone flights stopped for two days, then resumed. [50]

Those at the meeting told Human Rights Watch that the two provincial officials also gave all the families of the dead and wounded a total of 34 million Yemeni rials (nearly US$159,000): 2 million rials ($9,300) for each of the 12 dead and 10 million rials ($46,600) total for the wounded. The officials also gave the families 101 Kalashnikov assault rifles, a tribal gesture of apology. The apology and payment of money and guns also was reported in Yemeni media. [51]

Speaking on condition of anonymity, two senior Yemeni government officials and a ranking official during the Saleh presidency, all with links to defense and intelligence agencies, gave Human Rights Watch accounts that differed from the official statement printed by SABA. The officials said they had been told by their own sources—whom they did not identify—that the dead included civilians, though only one specified a number, five.[52]

While the former official reiterated the official position that AQAP members were targeted in the strike, he also acknowledged that “there is no doubt that it was a wedding convoy and that civilians were killed.”[53]

None of the Yemeni officials specified which of the dead were civilians and which were alleged AQAP members. One of the officials said he was informed that those killed “included smugglers and arms dealers. They were guys for hire—shady.”[54]

Two Yemeni government officials said in separate interviews that according to their sources, the pickup truck that the first missile hit was carrying the alleged AQAP member al-Badani but that he escaped.[55]

The witnesses and relatives with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said al-Badani was not at the wedding or in the procession and that they did not know him. Only close relatives attended the ceremonies, they said. “Whoever says otherwise is a liar,” said one local sheikh, Ahmad Muhammad al-Salmani.[56]

One of the Yemeni officials said another AQAP member on Yemen’s most-wanted terrorist list, Nasr al-Hotami of Rad`a, also was in the attacked pickup truck but had escaped. Al-Hotami is “a local bad guy” accused of killing a Yemeni security officer and two soldiers, the official said, adding that he did not have information that al-Hotami was involved in plots or attacks against the United States.[57]

Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were not aware of al-Hotami being in the procession and said they did not recognize his name. However, Iona Craig, a Sanaa-based journalist for the London Times who visited the strike area, said some witnesses told her that al-Hotami had been traveling in the attacked pickup truck. The witnesses said al-Hotami was known locally as a “brave man,” Craig said.[58]

Craig said the authorities had detained but released al-Hotami on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses against Yemeni targets in 2012, including the attack that killed the three security force members, and an 11-day takeover of Rad`a by AQAP in January of that year that ended when local tribes forced them out.[59] She also said she had not found any links between al-Hotami and activities against the United States.[60]

Three Yemeni officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that AQAP members had joined the procession, possibly as “camouflage.”[61] One of them said additional AQAP members may have been killed in the strike and their bodies removed by AQAP, but did not provide names or offer any information such as video footage or witnesses to support the claim.[62]

Abd al-Salam Muhammad, the Yemeni security analyst, told Human Rights Watch that he did not know if AQAP members were in the procession but that even if they were, three factors persuaded him that all 12 men killed were civilians.

The first factor, he said, was the contradiction between the official Yemeni statement of deaths and the provincial officials’ apology and payment of guns and money. The government statement’s omission of names of militants allegedly killed was striking, he said, given the authorities’ customary eagerness to name AQAP members they take out, while the guns and money were “a clear gesture of apology for wrongdoing.”[63]

Second, he said, AQAP did not describe any of those killed as “martyrs,” as it often—though not always—does when its fighters are killed. Third, he said, had those killed been known AQAP members, the families would not have displayed their bodies in Rad`a.[64]

Relatives Demand Redress

The relatives of the dead told Human Rights Watch that they did not consider the payment of money and guns from the Yemeni officials to be final compensation.

Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi of Yakla holds a photo of his son Ali Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, who was killed in a US drone strike outside Rad`a, Yemen on December 12, 2013. © 2013 Human Rights Watch

“Our skies should be clear of these drones. We can’t lead our lives. We can’t sleep,” said Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, the local sheikh who lost his son. “After this attack, men, women, and children became more afraid; they are afraid of another strike. It has become a nightmare.”[65]

Three relatives warned of action by their powerful al-Qaifah tribal confederation if they did not see prosecutions and additional compensation. Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi, who lost four relatives in the strike, told Human Rights Watch: “If the government makes good on its word… then we’re okay. But our tribe is very big, and it will not forget the blood of our sons; it will not let this blood flow in vain.[66]

[38] Kimberly Dozier, “US officials: drone targeted embassy plot leader,” AP, December 20, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/us-officials-drone-targeted-embassy-plot-leader (accessed December 20, 2013).

[39] Ibid.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Yemeni government official, January 2014. Further details withheld, and telephone interview with Abd al-Salam Muhammad, New York to Sanaa, February 4, 2014.

[41] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Muhammad, February 4, 2014.

[42] Michael Isikoff, “US investigates Yemenis’ charge that drone strike ‘turned wedding into a funeral,’ ” NBC News, January 7, 2014, http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/07/22163872-us-investigates-yemenis-charge-that-drone-strike-turned-wedding-into-a-funeral?lite (accessed January 7, 2014).

[43] See, e.g., Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, Yemen Deaths Test Claims of New Drone Policy, New York Times, December 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/world/middleeast/yemen-deaths-raise-questions-on-new-drone-policy.html (accessed December 20, 2013).

[44] Email from US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden to Human Rights Watch, February 3, 2014.

[45] Ibid.

[46] US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nomination of John O. Brennan to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Responses to Post-Hearing Questions, February 16, 2013, http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/130207/posthearing.pdf (accessed June 11, 2013).

[47] “Supreme Security Committee source: air strike targeted a car belonging to one of the leaders of al-Qaeda” (Ar), Saba News, December 13, 2013, http://www.sabanews.net/ar/news334625.htm (accessed January 26, 2014). See also “Yemen Airstrike Targeted Al Qaeda Militants,” Associated Press, December 13, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2013-12-13/yemen-airstrike-targeted-al-qaida-militants (accessed December 13, 2013).

[48] Human Rights Watch interviews with Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri, January 11, 2014; San`a, January 16, 2014; Ali al-`Amri, a councilman from al-Baida; February 2, 2014, all of whom were present at the meeting. The apology and gift of assault rifles also was widely reported in Yemeni media. See, e.g., “Government Offers Guns and Money to Families of Those Killed in Al-Beida,” Yemen Times, December 17, 2013, http://www.yementimes.com/en/1738/news/3238/Government-offers-guns-and-money-to-families-of-those-killed-in-Al-Beida%E2%80%99a-airstrike.htm (accessed January 26, 2014).

[49] Human Rights Watch interviews with Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri, January 11, 2014, and San`a, January 16, 2014, both of whom were present at the meeting, as well as Ali al-`Amri, a councilman from al-Baida who was involved in mediations between the family and the government, January 16 and February 2, 2014.

[50] Human Rights Watch interviews with seven relatives of the dead, January 11, 2014.

[51] Human Rights Watch interviews with Saleh Mohsen al-`Amri, January 11, 2014; San`a, January 16, 2014, and Ali al-`Amri, February 14, 2014. See also, e.g., “Government Offers Guns and Money to Families of Those Killed in Al-Beida,” Yemen Times, December 17, 2013, http://www.yementimes.com/en/1738/news/3238/Government-offers-guns-and-money-to-families-of-those-killed-in-Al-Beida%E2%80%99a-airstrike.htm (accessed January 26, 2014).

[52] Human Rights Watch interviews with the former Yemeni official, Official A, as well as current Yemeni Officials B and D, January 2014. Further details withheld.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Official A. Further details withheld.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Yemeni Official D, January 2014. Further details withheld.

[55] Human Rights Watch interviews with Officials B and D, January 2014. Further details withheld.

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

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Official D, January 2014. Further details withheld.

[58] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Iona Craig from New York to Sanaa, January 27, 2014. See also Craig, “What really happened when a U.S. drone hit a Yemeni wedding convoy,” Aljazeera America, January 20, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/america-tonight-blog/2014/1/17/what-really-happenedwhenausdronehitayemeniweddingconvoy.html (accessed January 20, 2014).

[59] See, e.g., Erwin van Veen, “Al-Qaeda in Radaa, Yemen – global security challenge or local succession dispute?” Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, February 5, 2014, http://www.transconflict.com/2014/02/al-qaeda-radaa-yemen-global-security-challenge-local-succession-dispute-502/ (accessed February 8, 2014).

[60] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with journalist Iona Craig, New York to Sanaa, January 27, 2014.

[61] Human Rights Watch interviews with Officials A, B and D, January 2014. Further details withheld.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Official B, January 2014. Further details withheld.

[63] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Muhammad, February 4, 2014.

[64] Ibid.

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

[66] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi, January 11, 2014.