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United States targeted airstrikes against alleged terrorists in Yemen have killed civilians in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The strikes, often using armed drones, are creating a public backlash that undermines US efforts against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The 102-page report, ‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,”examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.

“The US says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Human Rights Watch released “‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’” in a joint news conference on October 22, 2013, with Amnesty International, which issued its own report on US drone strikes in Pakistan.


During six weeks in Yemen in 2012-2013, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 90 people about the strikes including witnesses, relatives of those killed, lawyers, human rights defenders, and government officials. Human Rights Watch reviewed evidence including ordnance and videos from attack sites. Security concerns prevented visits to four of the attack areas.

With rare exceptions, the US government only acknowledges its role in targeted killings in general terms, refusing to take responsibility for individual strikes or provide casualty figures, including civilian deaths. The Yemeni authorities have been almost as silent. Both governments declined comment on the six strikes that Human Rights Watch investigated.


President Barack Obama describes AQAP, which took responsibility for a botched suicide bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day 2009, as a key threat to US citizens.

The six strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. They include a US drone-assisted attack in September 2012 in Sarar, central Yemen, that unlawfully struck a passenger van, killing 12 civilians. Villagers who rushed to the scene found their relatives’ charred bodies dusted in flour and sugar that they were bringing home from a nearby market. The reported target of the strike, an alleged local AQAP leader, was nowhere near the vehicle.

“The bodies were charred like coal – I could not recognize the faces,” said Ahmad al-Sabooli, a 23-year-old farmer. He told Human Rights Watch that when he moved in closer, he realized that three of the bodies, including those of a woman with a young girl still in her lap, were his father, mother, and 10-year-old sister. “That is when I put my head in my hands and cried,” he said.

In December 2009, a US cruise missile strike on a Bedouin camp in the southern village of al-Majalah killed 14 alleged AQAP fighters and 41 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children. The attack involved cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate weapons that pose unacceptabledangers to civilians.
In August 2012, a US drone attack killed three alleged AQAP members but also a cleric who preached against AQAP, and his cousin, a police officer. Relatives said the three suspects had sought out the cleric for a meeting three days after he denounced AQAP’s violent tactics, and that the cousin had come along to provide the cleric security.

During targeting operations, the US may be using an overly elastic definition of a fighter who may be lawfully attacked during an armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said. For example, a November 2012 drone strike in the military town of Beit al-Ahmar killed an alleged AQAP recruiter, but recruiting activities alone would not be sufficient grounds under the laws of war to target someone for attack.

The six strikes also did not meet US policy guidelines for targeted killings that Obama disclosed in May 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Obama said the US conducts strikes only against individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people,” when there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” and when capture is not feasible. The strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch pre-date Obama’s disclosure of the policy guidelines, but the White House has said the rules either were either “already in place” or being “transitioned into place.” 

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US government has carried out hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In Yemen, the US is estimated to have conducted 81 targeted killing operations, one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. Research groups report that at least 473 people have been killed in these strikes, the majority of them combatants but many of them civilians.

Human Rights Watch assessed the six strikes’ compliance with international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, but the applicability of this body of law was not always clear. The Yemeni government is engaged in an armed conflict with AQAP. The US denies being a party to this fighting, claiming instead that it is in a global armed conflict with Al-Qaeda and “associated forces” such as AQAP. However, the hostilities between the US and these groups do not appear to meet the intensity required under the laws of war to amount to an armed conflict. 

If the war model does not apply, the US should adopt a law-enforcement approach under international human rights law in addressing armed militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and AQAP, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights law only permits the use of lethal force when strictly and directly necessary to save human life.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are jointly calling on the US Congress to fully investigate the cases the two organizations have documented as well as other potentially unlawful strikes, and to disclose any evidence of human rights violations to the public. Those responsible for unlawful killings should be appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.

The Obama administration should provide its full legal rationale for targeted killings in Yemen and elsewhere. The Yemeni government should ensure that the US abides by international law when carrying out strikes on Yemeni soil.

“The US should investigate attacks that kill civilians and hold those responsible for violations to account,” Tayler said. “It’s long past time for the US to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.”

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