Drone strikes in Yemen

UK shared ops room where drone targets were identified – Yemen president

YEMEN-HRW Drones Relatives 2

Yemen’s president has said that the UK is a participant in a secret ‘joint operations control room’ in Yemen’s capital, from which individuals who are ‘going to be targeted’ are identified.

President Abdel Rabbo Mansur al Hadi made the claim while speaking to Human Rights Watch (HRW) researchers about covert US drone operations in his country.

The US, Yemen and Nato were also participants in the control room, the president added. A Yemeni government official told the researchers the room was used for ‘intelligence-sharing activities’ rather than purely for counter-terror operations.

A Nato official told the Bureau: ‘There are no Nato personnel on the ground in Yemen; Nato is not participating in any intelligence, military or counter-terrorism actions inside Yemen; and Nato is not involved in identifying al Qaeda members in Yemen.’

The official added that Nato does occasionally share information on counter-piracy with Yemeni officials, conducting meetings on board Nato ships in the Gulf of Aden. The last such meeting was on January 21.

A Foreign Office spokesman told the Bureau: ‘It is the longstanding policy of successive governments not to comment on intelligence matters.’

The UK has never acknowledged any role in the US’s covert drone programme, which has seen hundreds of drone strikes hit remote parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The English courts have twice refused to force the UK to reveal whether it shares intelligence on individuals in Pakistan that could lead to drone strikes.

It raises significant questions as to the role of governments such as United Kingdom in intelligence-sharing in Yemen.’
– Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch

In December, the British ambassador to Yemen, Jane Marriott, told an interviewer drones ‘certainly do make a difference’ in tackling terrorist threats.

Letta Tayler, HRW’s senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher, told the Bureau: ‘It remains unclear who exactly is in this group and what their roles are.’ However she said it ‘raises significant questions as to the role of governments such as United Kingdom in intelligence-sharing in Yemen.’

‘What is the intelligence that is being shared, and is any of that intelligence being used in strikes that may violate international law?’ Tayler said. ‘We do not know because the US government and the UK government, as well as others, will not give us the answers.’

President Hadi’s statement is included in a report, The Wedding that Became a Funeral, examining a drone attack that hit a wedding party on the outskirts of Rada’a in December 2013. The strike reportedly killed 12 men, all from two families. Many others were injured, including the bride, who sustained a cut under her eye.

HRW found conflicting reports over how many of the dead were civilians. After the strike, US officials said all the dead were militants, as did some Yemeni officials. But US officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, later said the administration was investigating the claims of civilian casualties. Officials also let it be known that the strike had been carried out by the military rather than the CIA.

Related story – Get the data: Drone Wars

HRW points out that neither the US nor Yemeni governments has provided information supporting the claim that the dead were involved in militancy – either at the moment of their deaths or more generally.

Researchers for HRW interviewed family members and eyewitnesses and identified, by name, 12 men who had been killed and six who were seriously wounded. ‘Eight family members… told Human Rights Watch that none of the people in the procession, including the dead and wounded, was engaged in any militant operations,’ the report notes.

Survivors describe in the report how the festive atmosphere of the wedding procession was shattered in an instant by the drone strike.

Related story – Letta Tayler discuses her October report on drone strikes in Yemen

Abdullah Mohammed al Tisi, a local sheikh, describes the immediate aftermath: ‘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.’

The target of the strike was said to be Shawqi Ali Ahmad al Badani, an alleged al Qaeda militant who was reportedly responsible for the plot that cause the US to shut more than 20 embassies in the middle east and elsewhere. He reportedly escaped injured.

Blood was everywhere, the bodies of the people who were killed and injured were scattered everywhere.’
– Shiekh Abdullah Mohammed al Tisi

HRW says the attack appears to violate several of the policy guidelines for targeted killing introduced by President Obama in May 2013. These specified that attacks should only be carried out if there was a ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’. This was ‘the highest standard we can set’, Obama added when he discussed the new rules in a speech in May 2013.

The guidelines also demand ‘near-certainty’ that the intended target is present, as well as insisting that they could not be captured, and they must pose a ‘continuing and imminent threat to the American people’.

But HRW says: ‘In light of the apparent civilian casualties, possibly numerous, the US government should explain how it determined that there was a “near-certainty” of no civilian casualties. Moreover, if US forces were tracking al Badani or al Hotami, the government should explain why the attack could not have taken place before or after the wedding procession.’

The report adds that the strike 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’.

Related story – More than 2,400 dead as Obama’s drone campaign marks five years

If there were al Qaeda militants in the convoy, using the civilians as human shields, then this too would be a violation of the laws of war on the part of the militants, the report said. But this would not ‘justify and indiscriminate or disproportionate attack by US forces,’ HRW added.

Despite numerous reports of what happened in this strike there has been no official response from the US. An ‘unacceptable’ level of secrecy according to Tayler. ‘We know at least 12 people were killed and we know at least 15 people including a bride were wounded in the strike,’ she said. All Yemenis and particularly the families of the dead and wounded deserve to know why this wedding procession became a funeral.’

UK-based legal charity Reprieve yesterday lodged a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Nato of war crimes. Reprieve says US’ allies in Nato, specifically the UK, Germany and Australia, are complicit in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Reprieve legal director Kat Craig said: ‘The International Criminal Court, established specifically to hold overwhelming state power to account, is in a unique position to offer some semblance of justice to individual drone victims with nowhere else to go. They must take this complaint seriously and investigate.’

Update February 20 2014: The above text was amended to include a quote from a Nato official.

Follow Jack Serle and Alice Ross on Twitter. Sign up for the drones newsletter and subscribe to the podcast.