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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

US Counter-Terrorism Operations in Yemen Have Caused Significant Civilian Harm

counter-terrorism operations in Yemen
Yemenis at a market in the capital Sanaa. Photo by Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP

Sophia Akram

Twenty years of counter-terrorism operations by US forces in Yemen have caused significant civilian harm, reports human rights NGO Mwatana, in a detailed account of 10 drone strikes and two ground raids between January 2017 and January 2019 in the war-affected country.

Titled Death Falling from the Sky – Civilian Harm from the United States’ Use of Lethal Force in Yemen, the report noted 38 Yemeni civilians, including 13 children, six women, and 19 men, were killed in the 12 operations of US counter-terror efforts in Yemen. Another seven civilians were injured, six of whom were children.

“One of the things that’s really important to acknowledge at the outset… is this report really only presents a snapshot of the civilian harm that the US has caused in Yemen”, said Kristine Beckerle, legal director for accountability and redress at Mwatana, talking at the report’s launch.

The report shines a light on the impact of US use of lethal force to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while much of the media coverage and discourse of Yemen has concentrated on the wider conflict with a number of actors — local and international — implicated in abuses. Within that war, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition but direct attacks pursued since 2002 have also lacked transparency and accountability.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) — which outlays all humans have the right to life — should provide criteria and reasoning for targeting individuals or objects where there is expected to be deprivation of life.

The human rights group said the incidents in the report raised concerns about US compliance with international law, who the US was targeting, and whether alternative measures could have been taken, such as capturing rather than killing targets.

Civilians, the organisation says, were going about their everyday lives when they were killed or injured, noting the benign vocations of victims and the stolen futures of children killed in operations.

Attacks resulted in further harm with economic repercussions after primary breadwinners were killed or from damaging and destroying property, such as vehicles, homes, and livestock. Attacks also resulted in longstanding social and psychological harm, including depression and anxiety, as well as fear from the buzz of drones overhead.

The documented incidents took place in the governorates of Abyan, Al Bayda, Shabwah, Hadramawt, and Ma’rib. In particular, Al Bayda has been prone to operations, especially in the remote Yakla village, drawing many to expect civilian harm and express anger toward the US.

The US has consistently undercounted civilian casualties as a result of its operations, and only acknowledged civilian harm in one of the incidents in Mwatana’s report. Furthermore, the NGO says the US has failed to hold responsible individuals to account or provide necessary compensation. None of the survivors from incidents in the report had received any follow-up communication from the US government.

“We often get drawn to the numbers”, said Ali Almurtada, a researcher with Mwatana, “but always remember that the ‘collateral damage’ are people who have their own lives, have their own families, they have their own kids, they have their own habits and normal lives. It’s the exact same thing, if you live in the suburbs of Brussels and if you live in the suburbs of Sana’a. Human life should be the same, and we should consider them the same”.

One of the accounts in the report recalls how on 23 May 2017, a US military raid in Al Athal village in Ma’rib left five people dead, including two civilians and two people belonging to the Yemeni army. Four others were injured. Mwatana learned how villagers were awoken in the night by gunshots with 19-year-old student Abdullah fleeing his house with his mother and sister when the raid began. As Abdullah hid behind one bush, his mother with his sister from another watched as a helicopter started shooting at her son.

“She saw fire falling from the sky and devouring the tree where Abdallah [had] sought shelter. She felt totally paralyzed watching her son die in front of her”, one resident told Mwatana.

On 26/27 January 2018, an airstrike on Shabwah killed five civilians and two Yemeni soldiers in As Said district. Among those killed were a driver, teacher, university student, beekeeper, and security officer driving to an AQAP camp with the soldiers to find a missing boy. Nearby villagers found the burned car and dead men; Mwatana found no credible evidence the men were involved in AQAP or IS activities or were associated with the groups.

CENTCOM denied US forces carried out the strike initially but later confirmed that a strike targeted AQAP in Shabwah on 26 January, but never acknowledged civilian casualties.

Mwatana and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic wrote to CENTCOM in November 2020 presenting its evidence of the Shabwah strike and others, urging its investigation, acknowledgment, and subsequent reparations in addition to a wider review of its operations in Yemen.

The letter is one of the organisation’s various efforts to present evidence of civilian harm to the US military.

The US policy of lethal force has remained consistent since George W. Bush was in office, although drone attacks stepped up under former US president Barack Obama.

Following an outcry from civil society in 2013, Obama revealed a new policy demanding “near certainty” over a target’s identity. Despite this, high profile errors continued to draw scrutiny over Obama’s drone programme, including a strike on a vehicle convoy at the end of 2013, the US alleged was transporting “terrorists”, but Human Rights Watch later found to be a wedding party, killing 12 people.

Whereas the US has paid compensation to victims of drone operations elsewhere, civilians impacted by operations in Yemen have never reportedly received compensation.

Under Donald Trump, so-called counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen escalated further. A report by Airwars states the monitoring organisation identified more than 230 actions by US military and CIA under Trump, compared to a total of 150 declared actions under Bush and Obama combined.

Mwatana’s findings arrive within the first 100 days of US President Joe Biden’s tenure in office, and as he touts a new foreign policy approach, he says will be rooted in human rights.

Specifically, the Biden administration has said it would cease support for “offensive operations” by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and suspend related arms sales. According to officials, these declarations do not impact US operations against AQAP, which they purport are in the interests of national security.

At the beginning of March 2021, Biden started a review of US counter-terrorism direct action that included drone strikes and military raids, which will likely seek to reverse Trump’s questionable policies, but some warn against simply reverting to an Obama-era approach, suggesting counter-terrorism should feature less in Biden’s overall foreign policy strategy.

Mwatana as well cautions there has been a worrying pattern of US administrations seeking to “collapse the distinction between war time and peace time, and the associated international rules on the use of lethal force”.

At the same time, Yemen’s government appears not to have taken action to protect civilian lives or hold the US to account, while the US claims it has had the support of the Yemen government to conduct raids.

To move forward, Mwatana urges transparency, investigations, accountability, and reparations for raids by US forces and abidance with international law.

Whether Biden will keep human rights central to the US’s foreign policy remains to be seen, the risk is a reversion to a problematic policy that simply looks good next to Trump’s excessive record.