(New York) – A deadly US drone strike on a December 2013 wedding procession in Yemen raises serious concerns about US forces’ compliance with President Barack Obama’s targeted killing policy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 28-page report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen,” calls on the US government to investigate the strike, publish its findings, and act in the event of wrongdoing. The December 12 attack killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride. US and Yemeni officials said the dead were members of the armed group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch the casualties were civilians. Obama said in a major address in May that US policy requires “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed in targeted attacks.
“The US refusal to explain a deadly attack on a marriage procession raises critical questions about the administration’s compliance with its own targeted killing policy,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “All Yemenis, especially the families of the dead and wounded, deserve to know why this wedding procession became a funeral.”
Four Hellfire missiles struck an 11-vehicle procession transporting the newlyweds to the groom’s village outside the central Yemeni city of Rad’a, destroying a pickup truck and damaging nearby vehicles. Witnesses and a Yemeni government source said three or four men fled the truck before it was struck. US and Yemeni officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the target was on Yemen’s “most-wanted terrorist” list and was wounded but escaped. A Yemeni government official said that another man who fled was also on Yemen’s “most-wanted terrorist” list.
The US has not officially acknowledged the strike. Neither the US nor Yemen has offered specific information, such as drone video footage, to support their assertions about the circumstances or the targets.
Witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch that no members of AQAP were in the procession and provided names and other information about those killed and wounded. They said the dead included the groom’s adult son and the bride received superficial face wounds. The local governor and military commander called the casualties a “mistake” and gave money and assault rifles to the families of those killed and wounded – a traditional gesture of apology in Yemen.
“The actions of local authorities, coupled with accounts of witnesses, suggest that at least some of those killed and wounded were civilians,” Tayler said. “If the procession included members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the United States needs to explain who they were and why they were lawful targets.”
In his May announcement on targeted killings, Obama also said US policy required “near-certainty” that the target is present, poses a “continuing and imminent” threat to the US, and could not feasibly be arrested. Human Rights Watch said the US has not shown that the attack met these criteria.
The attack on the wedding procession also may have violated the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or by causing civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage. The US should investigate and publish its findings on any laws-of-war violations.
Had members of AQAP deliberately joined the wedding procession to avoid attack, they would have been committing the laws-of-war violation of using “human shields.” That would not, however, justify an indiscriminate or disproportionate attack by US forces.
“Rather than instilling confidence that its targeted killings are lawful and adhere to US policy, the Obama administration’s silence is magnifying concerns,” Tayler said. “The US failure to address any harm to civilians also risks turning Yemeni allies into enemies.”