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April 23, 2013

Yemeni Testifies at Senate Drone Hearing on Human Cost of US Drone Wars

Posted in: Drones,War on Terrorism

***The above is Yemeni Farea al-Muslimi testifying at a Senate drone hearing late this afternoon. Below are details from his full witness statement submitted for the record.***

Farea Al-Muslimi is a journalist, writer and pro-democracy activist from Yemen. He was invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and human rights.

Six days ago, Al-Muslimi reports, the remote mountain village where he lives, Wessab, was struck by a drone . The attack “terrified thousands of simple poor farmers,” and its impact, he says, tore his heart, “much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts as well as mine.”

He describes his background:

My life changed forever in the 9th grade when I was awarded a scholarship from the U.S. State Department. The scholarship gave me an opportunity to study English for one year at Amideast, the American English Center in Yemen. This scholarship gave me new opportunities and allowed me to see the world beyond my village for the first time.

He considered himself an “ambassador to America for the Yemeni people” when he was attending high school in the United States. Now, in Yemen, he sees himself as an “ambassador for Americans” to Yemen and contends he will retain this role for the rest of his life as he defends American values he learned while studying in the US.

Al-Muslimi was already scheduled to testify at the Senate subcommittee hearing when his village was struck. It happened when he was “sitting with a group of American diplomats in Sana’a at a farewell dinner for a dear American friend.”

His phone lit up with calls and text messages. He is the only person in Wessab with a connection to the United States. The people in Wessab wanted to know: “Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones?  Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?” Both questions he could not answer.

“My understanding is that Hameed Meftah, who is also known as Hameed Al-Radmi, was the target of the drone strike,” Al-Muslimi states. “Many people in Wessab know Al-Radmi. Earlier on the night he was killed, he was reportedly in the village meeting with the General Secretary of Local Councilors, the head of the local government. A person in the village told me that Al-Radmi had also met with security and government officials at the security headquarters just three days prior to the drone strike. Yemeni officials easily could have found and arrested Al-Radmi.”

The strike made farmers in Wessab “afraid and angry.” Al-Radmi had not known he would be a target so they were “upset” because “they could have potentially been with him during the missile strike.”"Some of the people that were with Al-Radmi when he was killed were never affiliated with AQAP and only knew Al-Radmi socially,” Al-Muslimi reports.

“The farmers in my village were angry because Al-Radmi was a man with whom government security chiefs had a close connection. He received cooperation from and had an excellent relationship with the government agencies in the village.  This made him look legitimate and granted him power in the eyes of those poor farmers, who had no idea that being with him meant they were risking death from a U.S. drone.”

His village would have preferred to see Al-Radmi captured so he could be questioned and whatever he was doing wrong could be ended. But, they still do not know what he was doing that led to him being targeted and killed.”Instead, all they have is the psychological fear and terror that now occupies their souls. They fear that their home or a neighbor’s home could be bombed at any time by a US drone,” Al-Muslimi declares.

Villagers now think of America when ”they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time.”

According to Al-Muslimi’s testimony, he has not returned to Wessab. He does not know “if it is safe” for him to go back to Wessab because he is someone the village associates “with America and its values.”

“For me personally, it is deeply troubling, astonishing, and challenging to reconcile that the very same hand that taught me English, awarded me scholarships, and dramatically improved my life is the hand that droned my village, terrified my people, and now makes it harder for them to believe the good things that I tell them about America and my American friends,” Al-Muslimi shares. “It is especially frustrating to me because all the United States needed to do was identify Al-Radmi as a target, so that he could’ve been arrested without the injuries, destruction, and death caused by the drone strike. ”

Al-Muslimi has traveled to areas hit by drones and spoken with victims in his work as a journalist. One heart-wrenching story Al-Muslimi shares occurred in early March 2013. He was working with Newsweek in Abyan. He “met the mother of a boy named Muneer Muhammed.”

“Muneer, an 18 year old boy, transported goods for shops via his donkey in the local souk of Ja’ar town.  He had recently been engaged and was preparing for his wedding. Muneer was at work when a missile hit and killed him in May 2012,” according to Al-Muslimi.

At the time of strike, Muneer’s mother was in Lahj. She told me that she could not attend her son’s funeral or even see him before he was buried, due to the heavy fighting between the government forces and Ansar Al-Shariah along the road between Lahj and Abyan. In fact, the last time this grieving mother saw her son was when she was shown his dead body on a video from a random eyewitness’s phone. She told me, in tears, that if she ever meets the individual who shot the missile, she will “crunch him into pieces” in her mouth.

Abyan residents say Muneer was not a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula yet this has not stopped AQAP from using his death to recruit supporters.  ”Local residents told us that they approached one of Muneer’s relatives urging him to join AQAP in order to seek revenge for Muneer’s death.”

Al-Muslimi spoke to Saleh Bin Fareed, one of the tribal leaders present on December 17, 2009, at the site where a US cruise missile targeted the village of Al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan.

In the poor village that day, more than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women. Bin Fareed was one of the first people to the scene. He and others tried to rescue civilians. He told me their bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between the children, the women, and their animals.  Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as animals.

The attack on al Majalah is one of the worst attacks authorized by President Barack Obama yet when it happened the US government refused to speak publicly about what happened and referred individuals with questions from the press and human rights organizations to the Yemen government. [Note: Aspects of the attack remain secret to this day, which is why the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights are pushing for the release of information.]

Based on experiences, Al-Muslimi maintains that US missiles are “helping to destabilize” his country and “create an environment from which AQAP benefits.” He adds, “Every time an innocent civilian is killed or maimed by a U.S. drone strike or another targeted killing, it is felt by Yemenis across the country. These strikes often cause animosity towards the United States and create a backlash that undermines the national security goals of the United States.  The US strikes also increase my people’s hatred against the central government, which is seen as propped up by the Persian Gulf governments and the United States.”

For him, personally, he says that drone strikes have made his “passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen.” He believes “the anger against America” in parts of Yemen “that results from the strikes makes it dangerous” for him to “even acknowledge having visited America, much less testify how much my life changed thanks to the State Department scholarships. It’s sometimes too dangerous to even admit that I have American friends.”

He hates AQAP. They distort his religion and he despises their methods. But, he does not think America can win a war against AQAP by “simply killing more people on the other side.”

In conclusion, he recommends the US do the following, “stop all the targeted killing strikes, announce the names of those already on the “kill list,” so that innocent civilians can stay out of harm’s way, issue an official apology to the families of all civilians killed or injured by targeted killing strikes, compensate the families of innocent civilians killed or injured by strikes conducted or authorized by the United States, and, in every village where there has been a targeted killing, build a school or hospital so that the villagers’ only experience with America will not be the death and destruction caused by an American missile.”

“There is nothing villagers in Wessab needed more than a school to educate the local children or a hospital to help decrease the number of women and children dying every day,” he argues. This would have changed the lives of those in the village and “been the most effective counterterrorism tool.” But, “instead of first experiencing America through a school or a hospital, most people in Wessab first experienced America through the terror of a drone strike.

“What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

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