SANAA, Yemen — The villagers who rushed to the road, cutting through rocky fields in central Yemen, found the dead strewn around a burning sport utility vehicle. The bodies were dusted with white powder -- flour and sugar, the witnesses said -- that the victims were bringing home from market when the aircraft attacked. A torched woman clutched her daughter in a lifeless embrace. Four severed heads littered the pavement.
"The bodies were charred like coal. I could not recognize the faces," said Ahmed al-Sabooli, 22, a farmer whose parents and 10-year-old sister were among the dead. "Then I recognized my mother because she was still holding my sister in her lap. That is when I cried."
Quoting unnamed Yemeni officials, local and international media initially described the victims of the Sept. 2 airstrike in al-Bayda governorate as al Qaeda militants. After relatives of the victims threatened to bring the charred bodies to the president, Yemen's official news agency issued a brief statement admitting the awful truth: The strike was an "accident" that killed 12 civilians. Three were children.
Nearly four months later, that terse admission remains the only official word on the botched attack. A Washington Post article, published on Dec. 24, reports that "U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing airplane, that fired" on the vehicle. But the people of al-Bayda still have received no official word as to who was responsible for the deaths -- the United States, which in the past year has accelerated its covert targeted-killing program against Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; or the Yemeni government, whose new president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, was installed with Washington's help.
The information blackout on terrorism-related killings is not limited to al-Bayda. The United States has revealed only the barest details of its 400 estimated strikes on alleged militant targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia over the past decade. The attacks, carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), manned warplanes, and cruise missiles, have reportedly killed at least 2,800 people, according to sources such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) in London. Yet in most cases, Washington refuses to even confirm or deny any role in the strikes, much less acknowledge whether any civilians were killed. With the United States leading the way on obfuscation, allies such as Yemen have no qualms about following suit, leaving no one accountable when attacks kill the wrong people.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is reportedly drafting new rules on targeted killings, the majority of which have been conducted on his watch. But though these new rules might include more oversight, it's likely that the program will remain shrouded in secrecy. For the people of al-Bayda, just a pinprick on the map of innocents lost to the "war on terror," policy changes without more transparency mean nothing.
During a trip to Yemen for Human Rights Watch in October, I spoke with four people, including Sabooli, who witnessed the al-Bayda attack. The witnesses drove 10 hours round-trip to see me in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, after Human Rights Watch decided it was too dangerous for me to travel to al-Bayda, an area outside the government's control with a known al Qaeda presence and a reputation for kidnappings.
Without visiting the scene of the attack, we were unable to determine what kind of aircraft carried out the strike and whether it dropped a bomb or fired missiles. But the witnesses provided some important clues, including the presence of what they said were drones, during the attack. Only the United States is known to operate drones in Yemen, home to what Washington calls al Qaeda's most active affiliate.