JISHM, Yemen – On Dec. 12, 2013, shortly before the sun dipped behind the mountains and left a handful of modest stone-built homes and grazing goats in a fading silhouette, the ground shook. Across the valley, black smoke billowed into the sky. In the moments it took for the repeated explosions to echo from beyond the dry riverbed, the lives of scores of men, women and children in the Yemeni village of Jishm were shattered.
Four missiles fired from a U.S. drone hit a wedding convoy near the town of Radda’ in the central province of al-Baydah, killing 12 men.
The line of 11 vehicles were en route to the village of al-Abusereema, carrying out the tradition of bringing the bride to the family home of the groom, Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amari.
But along the country’s remote highlands, broken up by dry riverbeds, the convoy had paused.
The terrain was so harsh that they crawled along at less than 10 mph, up stony hillsides and down into the gravel base of a dried out river. And at some point, further back along the winding, sandy trail, one of the cars had broken down. The party divided as some stopped to help, and then re-grouped in a dip, in the shadow of a ragged hillside. A few men in the procession then noticed something unusual. The humming stopped.
The sound of a drone has been an ever-present backdrop to daily life in this province over the past two years. But it suddenly changed. The pilotless plane paused overhead, as if waiting with them. Driving at the front of the convoy in his Toyota Land Cruiser with seven passengers, Fatah Salem looked up.
Seconds before the first lethal missile fired, three men in a Toyota HiLux - three vehicles behind Fatah’s Land Cruiser - seemed to anticipate what was about to happen. They abandoned their pickup truck, and bolted across the pale gray sand.
“Some people in the convoy saw the drone firing missiles,” Fatah said.
The first missile exploded into the now-empty HiLux. Three more quickly followed, pounding into the ground around the vehicle, which burst into flames, and between other cars in the convoy, as if trying to hit the fleeing passengers.
In the tightly packed group of four-wheel drives, flying pieces of hot metal from the splintering missiles sliced through car doors and windows. Shrapnel cut into flesh as three more cars filled with wedding guests caught fire.
“Four people were killed in my car,” Fatah recounted six days after the strike, standing next to his vehicle, its windows shattered and its body riddled with holes. As we spoke, another apparent drone buzzed continuously over our heads. Alongside him, an indent in the ground marked where one of the missiles struck. Broken glass and scraps of metal littered the sand. Three more passengers in his Land Cruiser were injured.
Fatah was its only occupant to walk away unscathed.
The rise of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and America's air war
In recent years, most of Al-Qaeda’s significant, known terror plots directed against the U.S. have originated in Yemen. The terrorist organization’s regional branch, Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, emerged in 2009, and grew quickly in Yemen, the peninsula’s least-developed and most-tribal nation.
Since 2011, Ansar-al-Sharia, the local AQAP offshoot, has provided a steady stream of insurgent fighters, coming to a head here in al-Baydah in January 2012, after militants took control of five towns in the neighboring provinces of Abyan and Shabwa. In the same year, the U.S. escalated its drone, missile and other air strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda targets in the country.
To date, there have been more than 100 drone or other missile strikes in the country since 2002, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which tracks attacks. Many of them have provoked fierce outrage on the ground.
Four years before the strike on the wedding convoy, almost to the day, another attack killed scores of civilians. Yemenis still talk about the Dec. 17, 2009 tomahawk cruise missile, launched from a U.S. warship, that killed 41 people, including 14 women, 21 children and 14 suspected Al-Qaeda militants.
The number of drone strikes in Yemen last year dropped notably from the peak of 29 confirmed strikes carried out in 2012, according to (TBIJ). But the death of 12 wedding guests last month marked the country’s single greatest loss of civilian life from a U.S. drone attack since Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) were first used in 2002.
But because the programs are covert, American officials rarely acknowledge these strikes carried out in Yemen by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). When asked for a response, the State Department has repeatedly referred back to the President’s Obama’s May 2013 speech on counterterrorism, when he made a rare admission of the use of U.S. drones:
“We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” the president said. “And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
The speech was supposed to mark a shift in policy: gradually moving strikes from the purview of the CIA to the Pentagon, setting higher standards for authorizing drone strikes and limiting targets to only those who pose a “continuing imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured.
But last month’s strike in Yemen has brought fresh questions about the tough standards, sharp intelligence and precision that U.S. officials tout when defending the classified drone program.
A mysterious target
Eight days after the attack, an Associated Press story filed from Washington stated that unnamed U.S. and Yemeni officials had said that the target of the strike was Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, whom they accused of being the ringleader of an Al-Qaeda plot that resulted in the closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa last summer. According to the AP, al-Badani was also connected to a plot to target the American embassy in Sana’a in 2012.
But witnesses and survivors of the strike said the target appeared to be a man named Nasr al-Hattam, who escaped along with two other passengers in the HiLux destroyed by the first strike. They thought he was the target because his car was attacked first and was the only one hit directly in the onslaught of missiles.
Al-Hattam was known locally as a “brave man” who had been in trouble with authorities in the past. According to those in the convoy and other local residents, he had previously been arrested and held in Sana’a. They were unsure how he had been able to return al-Baydah.
Al-Hatam’s name was added to Yemen’s list of most-wanted militants in January 2013, according to a Yemeni government official. Yemeni government records claim he has links to a May 2012 attack on a checkpoint of the elite Republican Guard, which left three soldiers dead. The government also believes he supported the militant takeover of Radda’ town in January 2012. Security forces raided his house later that year, although official records remain unclear about whether he was arrested at the time.
If al-Hatam was the target, it is unclear what imminent threat he posed to the U.S., or whether he could not feasibly have been captured alive.
By sunset on Dec. 12, 2013, frantic phone calls from survivors relayed the news back to family in the nearby village of Jishm, the home of five of the dead.
“The Yemeni officials say there were Al-Qaeda militants. Let’s say they are Al-Qaeda, as they say. But is it right to hit them in a wedding convoy when civilians will get killed?” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Salmani, who represented the families of those killed by the strike in negotiations with the government for compensation.
“All this in the name of the war on terrorism…this attack is terrorism,” he added.
Amongst those killed was Arf Ahmed al-Taysi, who is survived by his wife and seven children. Less than a week after the strike, his eldest son Salem stared unblinking into the middle distance when asked about his father. Unwilling or unable to speak, he sat with his younger siblings in their stone hut on a rocky hillside. Salem did not know his age, but looked about 10 years old. The youngest, Mished, lay wrapped in a blanket. Mished was just 9 days old when the drone struck.
“Whatever we do, they will never look at us as human beings,” said Dahabiya, the elderly mother of one victim, a cousin of the groom, who left a wife and six children. “We end up with wounds they cannot see."
Three men killed from Jishm left behind 17 children between them, and another will be born in about six months. Their fathers either eked out livings growing qat – the mild narcotic plant chewed by a majority of Yemenis – in the barren landscape surrounding the village, or sneaked across Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia looking for work.
Residents of al-Baydah have long complained of neglect by the central government in Sana’a. With no government-supplied electricity or water, the only noticeable presence of the state anywhere near Jishm is an asphalt road more than an hour’s drive, or bumpy motorbike ride, away. Another 30 minutes on is the town of Radda’ and the nearest hospital, where the dead and injured arrived on the evening of the attack. Even in the provincial town, feeble state infrastructure and lack of basic services manifests in a retch-inducing, fetid river of sewage-water lapping over car wheel arches in the shadow of Radda’s historic castle.
The day after the attack, relatives and neighbors laid out the bodies of 11 of the dead in the streets of Radda’ in protest, and uploaded images and videos of their lined-up corpses to YouTube and Facebook. But the impact of the mass civilian casualties goes beyond the anger of these communities, and the despair of scores of women and children left without a breadwinner.
As compensation, the Yemeni government gave a representative from each of the deceased’s families YR 2 million, or $9,300, and another YR 1 million, or about $4,650, to the injured. The deal, which also included an as-yet unfulfilled promise to stop U.S. drones flying in the skies of al-Baydah -- failed to prevent nightly clashes from breaking out.
Every evening after sunset in the days following the strike, gunmen opened fire on the military checkpoint stationed on the main road linking Radda’ to the capital, Sana’a, some 90 miles north. Local residents of the town were unsure who was doing the shooting, speculating that angry tribesmen - fellow clansmen of the dead – were responsible, or Ansar al-Sharia. But given the interwoven relationship of the Qaifah tribe -- to which both families of the bride and groom can trace their roots -- and Ansar al-Sharia, the answer could well be both.
Fighting for hearts and minds
Just hours before the strike in Jishm, AQAP was facing its greatest ever public relations challenge in the ongoing attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Yemenis.
On Dec. 11, Yemen’s state television aired horrifying security-camera footage from a hospital inside the capital’s Ministry of Defense compound. The medical facility had come under attack in the initial stages of a 19-hour battle with militants on Dec. 5 that left 56 dead, including as many as 20 medical staff and patients. The released CCTV images, broadcast across the country, showed a gunman throwing a grenade into a group of hospital staff.
Just 24 hours later, with Yemenis still reeling from the shocking footage, the pendulum of sympathy quickly swung, when reports of mass civilian casualties in an apparent American drone attack emerged from al-Baydah.
A few weeks after the hospital massacre, AQAP apologized for the hospital attack, clarifying that they only meant to target the Ministry of Defense, and offered compensation for the deaths of civilians. But the silence out of Washington, and its disconnect from the anger in al-Baydah, may have been an even greater boon to the militants, as they tried to recover from a propaganda disaster.
Despite the Yemeni government’s attempts to placate resentment with mediation efforts and swift reparations, their efforts appear to have done little to diminish the anger felt by many in the province.
“This is a war against Muslims, against Islam and this is a crusade,” said Sheikh Ahmed, gesticulating to a U.S. drone whirring overhead, days after the governor of the province had pledged they would stop. “Our lives have no value to them.”
Iona Craig is an independent journalist based in Sana'a, Yemen, where she has reported since October 2010.
Editor: Azmat Khan