Recent revelations that the United States killed an innocent American in a drone strike in Pakistan confirm what a new study, “Death by Drone,” of civilian harm caused by U.S. drone strikes in Yemen shows — that claims about the precision of drone strikes are overstated. The revelations also underscore the stark asymmetry between how the U.S. treats drone strikes that kill its own citizens and those that kill others. While the Obama administration has now publicly acknowledged that it has recently killed three U.S. citizens in drone strikes, it has refused to acknowledge countless other drone strikes around the world which have killed non-U.S. civilians.
In Yemen, the U.S. has been conducting drone strikes since at least 2002, with estimates of the total number of strikes ranging from 91 to 203. While the American and Yemeni governments have lauded the drones’ precise targeting, they have refused to meaningfully disclose key details about the strikes, including how many have been conducted, who has been targeted, or, crucially, the number and identities of civilians killed.
In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, U.S. President Barack Obama offered assurances that, outside the Afghan war theater, no drone strike would be carried out unless there was “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Obama also claimed that the U.S. targets only “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and that it does not launch drone strikes when it has “the ability to capture individual terrorists.”
“Death by Drone,” which includes first-hand testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors of drone strikes in Yemen, tells a different story. The nine case studies documented in the report, four of which cover attacks that came after the 2013 speech, provide credible evidence that U.S. drone strikes have killed and injured Yemeni civilians, suggesting that the “near-certainty” standard is not being effectively implemented.
The report also casts doubt on Obama’s other claims, with evidence indicating that targets of drone strikes, though perhaps posing a threat to Yemen, may not have posed a direct threat to the U.S., and that their capture may have been possible. In other words, Yemeni civilians have suffered and died from drone strikes that may not have been necessary.
More generally, the report provides a window into the experiences of Yemeni civilians directly affected by U.S. drone strikes. The testimonies of these individuals, vital for assessing the U.S. drone program, are all too easy to overlook because these individuals are poor and have no political influence, and because the strikes are conducted in secret, far away from the U.S. As Yaslem Saeed bin Ishaq, whose son was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Wadi Sir on Aug. 1, 2013, observed, “They just kill. They do not know what havoc their missiles have caused. They are unaware of the suffering they create for our families.”
Indeed, if the U.S. never acknowledges the specific strikes, how can ordinary Americans possibly know that Rasilah al-Faqih, a pregnant Yemeni woman, was killed in Walad Rabei’, along with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, as they headed home from a visit to the doctor? Or that Abdoh Mohammed al-Jarraah’s house in Silat al-Jarraah had 19 people, including women and children, inside when it was hit by a U.S. drone strike?
The U.S.’ refusal to acknowledge drone strikes that kill foreigners is sending a damaging message in Yemen and beyond. As Moqbel Abdullah Ali al-Jarraah, a villager from Silat al-Jarraah, put it: “I believe that America is testing its lethal inventions in our poor villages, because [it] cannot afford to do so at any place where human life has value. Here, we are without value.”
In every incident recorded in this report, the families of Yemeni civilians killed in U.S. strikes want to know why they were targeted. As the father of Nasser Mohammed Nasser, one of four innocent civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike on April 19, 2014, lamented: “My son and those who were with him had nothing to do with al-Qaida. They were simply on their way to earn a living. Why, then, did the American aircraft strike them?” But the U.S. has given Nasser no answers. It has not even acknowledged that it killed his son.
In February 2013, then-White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan testified at his Senate confirmation hearing to become CIA Director that, “in the interest of transparency,” the U.S. must acknowledge mistaken killings publicly. Later that month, he recognized that the U.S. government “should make public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al-Qaida.” The U.S. has done neither.
It should come as no surprise, then, that civilians like Nasser, who have lost mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in U.S. strikes, are outraged not only at the U.S., but also at the Yemeni government, which consented to the attacks. They believe that instead of making Yemen and the U.S. safer, drone strikes only strengthen support for al-Qaida.
Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a new policy for drone exports, purportedly part of a broader effort to work with other countries to “shape international standards” on the use of drones and compel recipient states “to use these systems in accordance with international law.” But, as “Death by Drone” shows, the U.S. drone program is fundamentally flawed and should not be perpetuated. The Obama administration’s recent admissions that its drone strikes killed its own citizens only underscore this fact.
Amrit Singh is author of “Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen,” and senior legal officer for national security and counterterrorism at the Open Society Justice Initiative. © Project Syndicate, 2015
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