How Twitter mapped a ‘covert’ US drone operation in Yemen

The local press was quickly at the scene but Twitter broke the story first.

Though the hour was late, Yemen’s social media was still very much awake.

A US drone’s missiles had just slammed into a convoy of vehicles in a remote part of Yemen, killing three alleged militants.

The attack – like all other US drone strikes outside warzones – was supposed to be clandestine. Yet within minutes Sanaa-based lawyer Haykal Bafana was reporting the strike in almost-realtime. Just after 1am on May 17 he posted the following on Twitter:

As Bafana later explained to the Bureau, his relatives live in Shibam, a town of 30,000. ‘When the drone struck, the town – which was then experiencing a power cut – had completely lit up. My relatives got straight on the phone to tell me about the attack.’

‘No attacks so far’
The day prior to the strike Bafana had already tweeted that drones were behaving suspiciously in the area. Hadhramaut province, a sparsely-populated former sultanate, is far from Yemen’s troubled south, where most of the fighting and US drone strikes are currently taking place.

There has been militant activity there for some years, report locals, and surveillance drones have been active at night since 2010. But until now there had never been a drone strike. ‘But suddenly four or five days ago, my relatives were reporting drones over them in daylight, all the time, which was rare. Militants were also being seen moving about in the area, maybe preparing the way for an evacuation from the fighting in the south. Everyone was expecting something to happen’, Bafana recalls. He tweeted the news to his followers.

When the deadly attack finally came in the early hours of Thursday morning, the target itself was hardly a secret.

Earlier, Arabic-language online media in the provincial capital of al-Mukalla had reported that a convoy of alleged al Qaeda rebels was heading north. That news was also swiftly tweeted.

Others were clearly also charting the convoy’s progress. As the vehicles approached Shibam at around 1am local time, at least one car, a Toyota Hilax, was destroyed by missiles from above. Yemen’s own air force has neither the know-how nor the equipment to launch a precision strike on moving vehicles in the dark.

With drones the issue has always been the civilian casualties. And they are piling up, especially now.’ Lawyer Haykal Bafana

News agencies would later report the attack as a drone strike, naming two of the dead as Zeid bin Taleb and Mutii Bilalafi, both described as local al Qaeda leaders. Like the dozens of US drone strikes in Yemen that preceded it, Thursday’s attack was supposed to be secret. Yet Twitter and other social media were tracking in near-real time the events surrounding the operation.

‘It is incredible how the same type of technology used by the CIA to kill people with drones in the Yemen, is empowering the Yemenis to tweet the attacks as they are happening,’ Noel Sharkey, professor of robotics at the University of Sheffield told the Bureau.

‘They can send us all pictures and bring us closer to the horror they are experiencing. Technology in the small may eventually bring down the over-use of military technology in the large.’

Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter –  which played an important role in Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising – are now being used by activists to draw attention to a large increase in US drone strikes in recent weeks.

As Haykal Bafana notes, within minutes of his tweeting Monday’s attack the news was also posted on Facebook and on local Arabic micro-news sites. ‘Web use is as low as 2% here in Yemen. But it still makes a big difference. Many people get their news from the small local media sites rather than from foreign or state agencies. And Twitter is increasingly important.’

When President Obama’s chief counter terrorism adviser John Brennan visited Sanaa on Sunday,  Twitter witnessed an online protest with the hashtag NoDrones.

Yemen-based youth activist Sadam al-Adwar (@sadamtweety), for example, said ‘I’m against #terrorism & #extremism, i’m also against #drones. It’s counter-productive & fuels more extremism.’

And @WomanFromYemen, otherwise known as NGO consultant Atiaf al-Wazir, told her more than 8,000 followers: ‘For every headline you read regarding “militants” killed by drones in #Yemen, think of the civilians killed that are not reported. #NoDrones.’

Liveblogging without knowing it
Yesterday’s Yemen drone strike appears to be the first in which events were reported on in real time.

‘I’ve never heard of an example of people tweeting while drones were actually in the area,’ said Dr Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Policy, an expert on Yemen security issues.

‘It really gets to the myth that you can keep these strikes covert, and if you do not have an information campaign that supports their use, you leave yourself flat-footed by people reporting what is being done in real time.’

There is a precedent. Last year a Pakistani man unknowingly tweeted the presence of US Special Forces attack helicopters on the way to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 1 last year Pakistani IT consultant Sohaib Athar tweeted the following.

After a ‘huge window shaking bang’ he debated the significance of the night’s events on Twitter, even as US Special Forces carried out their controversial raid. He quipped to a follower that ‘moving to Abbottabad was part of the ‘being safe’ strategy.’

But as the news of Bin Laden’s death broke Athar lamented ‘Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.’

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