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Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber is a man on a mission to find the truth behind the drone attack that killed his relatives – and he traveled thousands of miles from his native Yemen to Capitol Hill to seek it.
Appearing at a congressional briefing Tuesday, he recounted the story of how his brother-in-law, Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, and his nephew, Waleed Abdulla bin Ali Jaber, were killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike last year in the rural village of Khashamir in Yemen’s eastern Hadhramaut province.
Because neither Yemeni nor U.S. authorities have provided a reason for the attacks, or offered compensation to the victims’ families, Faisal vowed to bring his case to the halls of Congress. The British human rights organization Reprieve provided support, financing his trip to Washington alongside a Yemeni delegation that included Baraa Shiban, who is Reprieve's Yemen representative and served as Faisal’s translator during the trip.
“The aim of my visit here was, first of all, to find out who was responsible for the deaths of Salem and Waleed, and I want to know if someone will be held accountable for their deaths,” Faisal said in an interview through his translator. “Also, I wanted to bring the message to Congress from the people of Khashamir, who are fearful every day for their lives that they too might suffer the same fate.”
Sitting stiffly upright, with his thick, wire-framed glasses sliding down his nose as he spoke, Faisal calmly recounted the details of that night. Just 22 hours earlier, on Aug. 28, 2012, he had celebrated his son Wahb’s wedding with family and friends from the village. “It was a moment of happiness, jubilation and enjoyment,” Faisal said. In attendance were Salem, 43, and his son, Waleed, 26.
Despite the festive mood, there was reason for the family to feel uneasy in such a public setting. Salem was a respected cleric who a week before had delivered a strong sermon at the village mosque, condemning Al-Qaeda’s extremism. Fearing reprisals from Al-Qaeda supporters, Salem’s father approached Faisal for guidance and asked him to speak to his son about toning down his speech. Salem refused.
“He told me that we scholars had a role to play and if we didn’t do it, who would?” said Faisal, who is an environmental engineer for Yemen’s Environment Protection Authority in the capital, Sanaa. “After that sermon, the people in the village started talking about how Salem might be a target of Al-Qaeda's because that was probably the first time they had ever heard a scholar, a preacher, speak so strongly against them (Al-Qaeda).”
The following day, Aug. 29, three unknown men drove into the village looking for Salem. They entered the mosque, and worshippers who had gathered for evening prayers directed them to the cleric. Salem feared they might be Al-Qaeda fighters looking to exact retribution for his sermon. He called his son Waleed, a local policeman, for protection. Waleed accompanied his father outside to a nearby palm grove where the men were waiting. Within seconds, four drone strikes – one every couple of minutes – struck the area and killed all five men instantly.
“I was having dinner on my outdoor balcony when I saw a flash of light drop from the sky and then the missile made contact and sounded like the mountains around us fell on the village,” Faisal said.
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., led the Tuesday briefing, which was co-organized by Reprieve and the women’s peace movement Code Pink, and took place in a packed room in the Rayburn House Office Building. House Intelligence Committee members Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also attended. They admitted they had learned of Faisal’s case only through media reports.
Official information on drone strikes for committee members is scarce, they said, partly because the CIA has not de-classified the program.
“This is a drone policy conducted in secret,” Grayson said in an interview. “The truth is that when I first approached my colleagues about this issue, many of them didn’t even grasp the full scale of it because they didn’t have the necessary information for any significant debate.”
Legality of drone strikes
International law scholars have long debated the legality of drone strikes outside combat zones.
For its part, the Obama administration has used Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as a legal justification for the strikes.
But Notre Dame Law Professor Mary O’Connell said the charter – which says that states have an “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations” – clearly distinguishes between combat and non-combat zones.
“Public international law right now says you can’t do these killings and the only point of changing the law, which some in the White House have proposed, is so that the Obama administration can do these killings lawfully,” said O’Connell, who has on several occasions testified before Congress, asserting the illegality of drone strikes outside of designated war zones.
Others within the international law community have questioned O’Connell’s views, however, arguing that international law standards must be re-imagined to reflect the new security challenges of the 21st century.
“Drone policy or target killing, I think, can be justified in the context of international law,” said University of Utah Law professor Amos N. Guiora. “But, until changes are made, the existing international law framework is the existing framework and they (the Obama administration) should have to act in accordance to that framework.”
Looking to the future
Shortly after the attack, Faisal received a phone call at his home from a man who identified himself as Mohammed and said he was an official in the country’s counterterrorism unit. He apologized for the deaths of Salem and Waleed, and claimed that it was a mistake. Faisal demanded an investigation but all his requests were ignored, which compelled him to make the long journey to Washington.
“I won’t ever give up my fight until I know who killed Salem and Waleed,” Faisal said, adding that his family now fears that his going public with his story has compromised his own safety. “I tell them something Salem always told me: ‘Whenever it’s your destiny, it’s your destiny. No one dies before his time.’”