A Yemeni man whose relatives were killed in a U.S. drone strike nearly three years ago filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government Monday, seeking a declaration from a federal court in Washington, D.C. that the raid was unlawful.
The suit filed by Faisal bin Ali Jaber — who lost his brother-in-law Salem, 43, and nephew Waleed, 26, in an August 2012 drone strike — says that the attack "violated the laws of war and the norms of customary international law," adding that the purpose of the litigation is to "hold accountable those responsible for their wrongful deaths."
"Since the awful day when I lost two of my loved ones, my family and I have been asking the U.S. government to admit their error and say sorry," said Jaber, whose lawsuit names President Barack Obama and former CIA Director David Petraeus among the defendants. "Our pleas have been ignored. No one will say publicly that an American drone killed Salem and Waleed, even though we all know it. This is unjust."
The CIA's covert drone program has carried out 15 airstrikes and 109 drone strikes since 2012, according to data from the New America Foundation, which estimates the military actions are responsible for between 83 and 89 civilian deaths. The CIA told Al Jazeera on Monday that it had "no comment" on the lawsuit while the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Salem was an "imam known locally for his sermons against terrorist violence" and had preached a sermon critical of Al-Qaeda and its tactics just days before his death in Khashamir, a small village in eastern Yemen, according to the lawsuit, while Waleed was a local traffic policeman in the village.
According a report in the New York Times, Salem's anti-Al-Qaeda message worried his family, who thought it might provoke the group. Days later, three young men drove into Khashamir seeking to meet with Salem, but Salem's family members were wary about the men, fearing they may have been members of Al-Qaeda upset by Salem's sermon, the Times reported.
Salem eventually decided to meet with them, with Waleed going along with him for protection. The drone strike on Aug. 29, 2012 happened as the five men spoke, killing all of them. According to the lawsuit, Jaber later received a phone call from an individual identifying himself as a representative of Yemeni security forces, who apologized for the deaths of Jaber's relatives and said Salem and Waleed were not the intended targets of the attack.
While it's unclear who the other three men killed in the attack were, the lawsuit, citing accounts of people who saw them before the strike occurred, said they were in their late teens and wanted to discuss Salem's sermon with him. The New York Times report notes that while U.S. officials have not publicly addressed the specific details of the strike, "it appears that drone operators had evidence" that the three were members of Al-Qaeda.
But Jaber's lawsuit contends that even if the three unidentified men who met with Salem and Waleed were affiliated with Al-Qaeda, "the circumstances clearly permitted their arrest rather than extrajudicial killing."
After initially seeking compensation and answers from authorities in Yemen, Jaber and other community leaders came up empty.
But then in November 2013, Jaber traveled to the U.S., where he met with U.S. lawmakers and representatives from the White House National Security Council. Though no one was able to provide an explanation of what happened, the lawsuit suit said the visit "seemed to reignite Yemeni government interest in the case."
Yemeni officials later ordered a payment of roughly $55,000 to Waleed and Salem's families. The lawsuit also says the families were given another $100,000 during a meeting at Yemen's National Security Bureau, which a Yemeni official said "had come from the U.S." without providing any further information.
"If the U.S. was willing to pay off my family in secret cash, why can’t they simply make a public acknowledgment that my relatives were wrongly killed?" Jaber asked in a statement released by the U.K.-based rights group Reprieve, which is assisting with the case.
"Faisal has not received an apology," said Attorney Cori Crider, referring to her client by his first name. "All he wants is for the U.S. government to own up and say sorry — it is a scandal that he has been forced to turn to the courts for this most basic expression of human decency."