The Cowards' War: the NGO
Abdul Rahman Ali Barman is a Yemeni lawyer dedicated to human rights. His organization, HOOD, is active since 1998, and has seen many cases over the years. In a dictatorship, the amount of threats that such an NGO receives from the government is always a testimony to its efficiency. In 2011, HOOD’s central office in central Sana’a received direct cannon rounds from a nearby army barrack: they must have been doing something right. They continued their work from a tent for over a year and a half, and are now back to their headquarters processing all sorts of human rights violations.
Abdul Rahman says that since the removal of President Saleh and the subsequent landslide victory of his former deputy Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, not too difficult to obtain since he was the only candidate, things are looking up in Yemen. There are improvements in some areas such as press and internet freedom, people are becoming more free to share their ideas, up to a certain point of course. There are still enforced disappearances and random arrests of journalists. Guilt by association prevails in Yemen, where the suspicion of any link with al-Qaeda can land someone in prison. There, the interrogation techniques have not changed. After all, democracy is a lengthy process, it requires time to hatch, or so we are told by Liberal Peace fairy tales. Detainees are still subjected to the same type torture as before the Arab Spring: electricity, suspension of arms twisted behind the back, punching, etc.
Why is the human rights situation in Yemen so important, and what is the connection to drone strikes and targeted killings carried out by the US government on Yemeni soil? From an International Law perspective, there are two different frameworks that could apply, depending on whether the US has declared war against another Nation State. If it has, there are rules on how to conduct a war with a minimum damages, under the precepts of International Humanitarian law. If it has not, the use of lethal force is much more difficult to justify, and falls under the precepts of International Human Rights Law. From the perspective of the latter framework, the practice of targeted killings could be regarded as an extrajudicial execution. That’s however not counting with the help of the United Nations Charter. Under its article 51, a country can kill if is has an “invitation from the state where force is used to join with it in armed conflict hostilities.” (1)
The US claims that the Yemeni government has asked its help against al-Qaeda, and that therefore Article 51 applies. Abdul Rahman strongly disagrees, and explains that there have been several debates in parliament about this: “how can a country which is not even a democracy ask for this help? The Parliament never requested anything, or passed any law regarding this supposed assistance. No one has access to any documents of the sort. Even the current Prime Minister declared on al-Jazeera never to have seen such documents.”(2) Article 51 cannot work for two reasons. First, the assertion that the current Yemeni leadership was “elected”, in a sad excuse for a democratic process, since there was only one candidate to vote for. Abdul Rahman argues that therefore is no legitimacy to be found in the current government. Second, there was no official request, validated by Parliament, for any military assistance from the US. From an International Human Rights Law perspective, the Obama administration is therefore carrying out extrajudicial executions.
Who benefits from this War Crime? Certainly not only the usual suspect, i.e. the Yemeni government. Abdul Rahman mentioned the recent execution of two moderate al-Qaeda officials killed in drone strikes, Fadel Qasr and Mohammed el-Hamda. According to him, Qasr and el-Hamda were members of the AQAP council, the Shura, which decides on operations across the country. They both had withdrawn during the vote on several operations, which they did not agree with. Their names and locations were conveniently given to the Yemeni government to facilitate a purge within AQAP. According to Abdul Rahman, AQAP’s military leader, Qasm al-Raimi, is actually very close to the previous and current governments. Indirectly, the US government is therefore aiding and abating AQAP, assisting in its purge from the inside. Moderates have never made convenient enemies.
Can NGO workers too become enemies of the US? Abdul Rahman does not discard the possibility. Last December, Abd al- Rahman Omair Al Naimi, a Qatari colleague from HOOD’s sister organization Alkarama, was designated as a supporter and financier of al-Qaeda by the US Treasury Department. It seems that working on drones and human rights in Yemen may land anyone, author included, in trouble. Abdul Rahman explains that when it comes to these issues, and the power that the US has on the government, these activists could even end up in prison. HOOD and AlKarama’s links with international NGOs such as US-based Code Pink have granted them protection both in Yemen and abroad to a certain extent. However, Abdul Rahman sees these organizations’ lavish spending on the back of their suffering with much caution. He explains: “if they invested even three percent of the funding they obtain thanks to our suffering to help us train Human Rights delegates on the ground, this would enhance our efficiency tremendously.” The Peace Industry as well as free-lance journalists revels on the drones “story,” any other international coming to Sana’a to work on the issue is likely be ignored by the “specialists.” The drones also created a certain gold rush.
Alkarama designates the US extrajudicial killings as a second-generation Guantanamo. Abdul Rahman confirms this as many of the targets of US strikes are former prisoners. The most infamous of the attacks, on the town of Majella, fits this profile. On December 17th 2009, the US carried out a “double tap” on a small village nine hours of Sana’a. It killed up to forty-two people, most women and children. This “double tap” technique is notoriously used by al-Qaeda in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It consists of a first strike followed by a second attack a few minutes later, under the understanding that the people rushing to the scene to help others are guilty by association and therefore deserve to die too. In Majella, the first strike consisted of four Hellfire missiles, followed a few moments later by a Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (BGM-109D) “designed to carry 166 cluster bombs, each containing approximately 200 iron splinters that can reach a distance of 150 [meters] from the drop point.”(3) The target of the attack was Mohammed al-Qazimi, a former alleged al-Qaeda associate who had spent fie years in a Yemeni jail, and had been released shortly before the strike. Since he had returned to Majella, he passed an army checkpoint morning and afternoon to go and buy his daily bread and khat.(4) He could easily have been arrested and tried at any time.
What therefore justified the strike, and the lavish spending of US taxpayer funds to kill someone who was completely accessible to Yemeni law enforcement? Given the price of the ammunition used, the attack cost a minimum of two million US Dollars, a sum that could easily have been invested in the development of the village, hence fostering pro-US sentiment among the population. After the Majella attack, President Saleh rang the mayor to justify the killing, arguing that all involved, including the women and children, had ties to al-Qaeda. The mayor allegedly responded: “I hoped that when they had died, the children would have known how to read and write; I hoped that when they had died, their stomachs had been full; I hoped that when they had died, they would have had electricity, computers and access to internet.” The attack whose funds could have been put to good use boosted AQAP support in the region.
Abdul Rahman recalls the funeral of Majella victims with emotion, especially this old lady who pleaded, referring to the US: “they even have laws that protect animals, why can’t they just consider us like their animals?”
(1) See http://law.wustl.edu/harris/documents/OConnellFullRemarksNov23.pdf, p.1.
(2) Interview with Abdul Rahman Ali Barman, January 9th 2014, Sana’a, Yemen.
(3) See http://en.alkarama.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1157:yemen-license-to-kill&catid=66&Itemid=215, p. 66
(4) The khat is a local leaf that is chewed daily for its stimulant properties.
The Cowards's War: the family
Mohammed al-Qawli, a former Headmaster in his late forties, has been restless for nearly a year. On January 23rd 2013, his brother, schoolteacher Ali Ali al-Qawli, was killed in a drone strike, alongside seven other men. They were traveling to the north of the village of Qawlan, half an hour from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, when four hellfire missiles hit their Toyota Hilux.
Mohammed remembers hearing an explosion: he went out to see if the Hilux was still in the village, and that’s when he realized that something bad might have happened. He knew about drone strikes but discarded the possibility. The Americans had never targeted his area, notoriously close to the previous government elite. He and other village members travelled to the scene of the explosion: nothing could have prepared them for what they were about to see. The scene was on fire, filled with charred human remains and debris. The car had been moved 10 meters away from the impact of one of the missiles, close to a house on the other side of the road. Water was gushing from an irrigation tube, and men from a nearby village were walking aghast among the debris.
Mohammed was on autopilot. Villagers pointed to a charred body at the back of the car, whose teeth were unmistakably those of his brother. Soon, security services turned up. All the officials cared about was to find the car’s number plates. They soon departed the scene. Afterwards, onlookers gathered all the remains they could find: more than one hundred. They were immediately taken to Sana’a for a forensic examination.
Immediately after the strike, the Yemeni government declared that al-Qaeda operatives had been killed in the attack. This generated a massive protest from the local tribes, the government was forced to issue a retraction: Ali al-Qawli and all other occupants of the car were declared innocent of any crimes.
Since Ali was a quiet schoolteacher with no links to any political organization, Mohammed started asking himself who else in the car could have been targeted. That’s when it dawned on him: a known opponent of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in the car, Rabieh Hamud Labieh. Labieh, a democratically elected local councilor, had turned against Saleh during the 2011 Arab Spring-related demonstrations. He was notorious for having denounced the smuggling of government weapons between Sana’a and Saleh’s fief, right after his demise. He had been an opponent to the new regime, arguing that th country was still a dictatorship.
According to the Yemeni National Organization or Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD), the Yemeni government has been instrumental in assisting the US government with its strikes, from the collection of incriminating “evidence” to the collection human intelligence. In sum, the Yemeni government says who to strike, where and when. For Mohammed, it makes no doubt that the government used the US to get rid of its political opponent, a view shared by HOOD and Swiss-based NGO Alkarama. Not only is the “war on terror” not nearly over, but also one can conclude that the Arab Spring never really took off in Yemen, where Saleh’s successor, former vice-president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, continues to purge his political opponents.
How much does it cost, in Yemen, to dispose of a democratically elected politician? One only needs powerful allies. Alkarama asserts that it would have been very easy to arrest Labieh and try him for treason. After all, there was a military police checkpoint only five hundred meters from the scene of the explosion. Four Hellfire missiles were launched at Labieh’s vehicle, preceded by more than a day of drone reconnaissance. Provided that the basic cost of a Hellfire is $65,000, counting the drone flying hours and personnel costs, the attack could have reached a $400,000 price tag for the US taxpayer. Since the Yemeni government cleared all occupants of any relationship with al-Qaeda after their death, this particular incident is proving to be a costly mistake.
No compensation was offered to the families of the victims. Salim, the car’s driver, left behind an impoverished extended family. Ali left three ophans who are now being raised by Mohammed. Ali’s eldest, Mohammed Ali, asked me to film him as soon as I arrived in his house. He asks a very simple question to President Obama: “Sir, why did you kill my dad?” (1)
As we parted, Mohammed says that he will never let go until he obtains an apology from the US government, and compensation for all its Yemeni victims. Whenever there is an attack elsewhere in the country, he races to the scene in own SUV, bought specifically for this reason. He then collects the remaining parts of the missiles and brings them to Sana’a. He has been documenting every strike since his brother’s death, and wows to do so until a missile strikes him eventually. Showing me part of a Hellfire that killed his brother, he defiantly claims: “this is the humanitarian aid we in Yemen get from the US, it is all one big lie, and I will never give up for all the victims’ sake.”
(1) See the link to Mohammed Ali al-Qawli's question to President Obama: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un0vxahkYFM