Baraa Shiban, Reprieve’s Yemen Project Coordinator who investigates drone strikes

A human rights organization, Reprieve, has shared a report on a United States drone strike that killed twelve men and wounded dozens more in a wedding convoy near Radda in December. The report is based off interviews with local villagers and features eyewitness accounts of the one of the worst drone attacks in the history of Yemen.

According to NBC News, Baraa Shiban of Reprieve, a human rights organization based in the United Kingdom, investigated the drone attack and found that a “convoy of 11 cars and trucks carrying about 60 people traveling from the home of the bride to the neighboring village of the groom” was “waiting in a valley for more guests to join.” A drone approached and, according to Ahmed Mohammed Al Shafe’ee, a 70-year-old shepherd, a “loud explosion” was heard from the valley.

When Al Shafe’ee arrived, bodies were scattered all over. He found out that his 25-year-old son, who was the father of seven, including a baby born just fifteen days ago, was one of the people killed in the attack.

The women and children were screaming and crying. They live in a remote area of Yemen and there are few places to run from the drones. “We live in fear day and night. Our children and women cannot sleep,” Al Shafe’ee apparently told Shiban.

From a list of men killed in the drone attack, Shiban concluded they were “shepherds and [qat] farmers, who ranged in age from 20 to 65.”

Reports of civilians killed have circulated in Yemen ever since the attack. The Yemen government found the reports credible enough to compensate a local tribe for what happened.

According to NBC News, President Barack Obama’s administration is apparently investigating the drone strike. White House National Security Staff spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden stated:

Before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set…And when we believe that civilians may have been killed, we investigate thoroughly.

An anonymous US official told NBC News, “Given that there are claims of civilian casualties, we are reviewing it.”

It has not been the public standard to investigate drone strikes when allegations of civilians killed have been reported. For example, in September 2012, an attack in Yemen reportedly killed 13 civilians. The Obama administration maintained silence, and, despite requests for comment, never suggested it was investigating the strike because there were claims civilians were killed.

In fact, days before Obama was re-elected as president, Yemen President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi visited the US and praised drones. ”They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you’re aiming at,” he said. It indicated Yemen would continue to be a client state of the US in the war on terrorism.

Just this year, when reports from human rights groups—Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—were released, the White House said nothing about regularly investigating strikes when allegations spread that civilians were killed.  And, in Obama’s speech at the National Defense University in May 2013, where he addressed the issue of drone strikes, he did not say anything about the US having a responsibility to investigate whether civilians were killed if allegations of civilian casualties were made. Instead, he sought to downplay the risk that drones pose to civilians.

This statement from a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Staff should be viewed with an over-abundant amount of skepticism. What does it mean there’s an “investigation”? If civilians are found to be killed, is there even a process for accountability or taking responsibility for an “error” or, worse, a war crime? Is there even a mechanism setup for compensating these individuals? Why should we think anything will happen that meaningfully addresses the rage of Yemenis when the administration still insists on speaking only “generally” about drone strikes to shield the CIA and other government agencies from having to disclose information on the policy and legal basis for drone attacks?

Should one view this is as anything other than some public relations ploy to dupe Yemenis into believing their dead family or community members actually matter to the Obama administration?

Anonymous US officials have already provided their version of what they want Americans to believe happened. Two officials told the Associated Press, “Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani was the target. He is a mid-level leader in Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. officials say between nine and 12 other militants were killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to describe drone operations publicly.”

Whoever this person may be, it certainly would appear that any “review” or “investigation” was already completed. They believe nine to 12 militants were killed.  Al-Badani was the target, even though he was not killed in the strike. It is all false, but it seems this is the story of what happened within the government.

In contrast, Shiban informed NBC News he found “no sign that Badani was anywhere near the village, noting that he was from another region of Yemen, and, as a ‘stranger’ to the area, was unlikely to have been invited to a gathering celebrating the wedding between a groom and bride in two neighboring villages.”

Both Iona Craig and Adam Baron, journalists based in Yemen, uncovered no signs in their reporting that suggest al-Badani was near the area of the strike.

As for whether any of the men were actually militants, local Yemeni journalist Nasser al-Sane, who took video and photographs of the scene of the attack, Al-Sane, said to NBC News “the young men killed in the strike were carrying rifles.” That was not unusual. “In an Arab wedding, it is a tradition for people to carry arms. They shoot bullets in the air as a form of expression. That’s how they celebrate a wedding.”

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The Yemen government tacitly admitted that something went terribly wrong when it provided compensation to a local tribe. And, as one anonymous Yemeni official put it, “It is a total mess. It is completely not clear who was killed. This should be a wake-up call to everyone involved (in drone strikes) to find out what’s going on.”

That is a severe understatement. More appropriate would be to acknowledge the role this attack had in helping AQAP just after the group had outraged Yemenis when it attacked a Ministry of Defense hospital.

Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist, noted that “public discourse shifted.” Anger was “redirected” from al Qaeda, which “had almost destroyed itself.” America had come to the rescue.

In a country that has suffered almost a decade of US drone strikes and watched them obliterate hundreds of innocent lives, it mattered little that the “official” target in Radaa were several militants among the wedding goers. Rather, that drone strike reminded Yemenis, once again, that it is American terror that looms over them – constantly. As one Yemeni activist said: “If you escape AQAP, you don’t escape US drones.”

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American intervention did years worth of public relations on behalf of AQAP. While this is the latest and certainly the most blatant example, it is far from the only instance of the US indirectly assisting Al Qaeda’s PR machine – and even its human resources department. It was actually in the Radaa district that a researcher, who recently visited the area, discovered a local AQAP leader who was complaining about new recruits not carrying out their regular religious prayers – they did not join Al Qaeda for ideological reasons, but because they saw the group as a means to avenge relatives killed in US drone strikes and for other reasons that have nothing to do with ideology.

Al Qaeda even outdid the US by apologizing for attacking the Ministry of Defense Hospital. They claimed they had wanted to attack a drone control center and made a mistake.

That led Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN, to write, “In Yemen where the US has been fighting a small, undeclared war for the past four years, we have now arrived at the ironic point where America’s main enemy there, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is doing a better job of truth telling than the US.”

In other words, secrecy is aiding al Qaeda. The militant group, AQAP, which the US claims to be fighting, is being helped by the Obama administration’s commitment to not being specific and open about what happens in drone strikes when they occur.

Add this to the fact that from 2009 to 2012, AQAP went from 200 to 300 individuals to over 1,000, which means the size of the group tripled.

Altogether, Yemenis could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Obama administration has declared war on them and the US government is trying to create conditions where AQAP will proliferate. They could be forgiven for believing drones attract al Qaeda and all they can possibly do is live in fear of what terror they may encounter next