On one of the videos I reviewed, two men are heard saying that a warplane with "two exhausts in the back" -- presumably twin engines -- fired munitions at the vehicle while other aircraft were circling. The men's agitated exchanges underscore the confusion in Yemen over who is conducting such attacks.
"It's our government; it's our government," one man says.
"It's America; it's America," the other responds.
Media reports quoting Yemeni officials as saying Yemeni warplanes carried out the attack also provide no clear answers. A classified U.S. cable from January 2010, released by WikiLeaks, revealed that Yemen has previously covered up for U.S. targeted killings gone awry. As the cable relates, Saleh, president at the time, was talking to Gen. David Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command. The two officials were discussing a botched airstrike in late 2009 that killed 41 civilians in southern Abyan governorate. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," said Saleh.
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Yemen has a long, painful history in the U.S. war on terror that includes being the site of the first known U.S. drone strike against a terrorist target. The attack, 10 years ago, killed reputed al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, along with five other alleged militants. The United States carried out its next targeted killing in Yemen in 2009 and to date has carried out at least 52 drone strikes and other air attacks there, killing hundreds, according to TBIJ. But lack of access to the attack areas, nearly all of which are too dangerous for international media and investigators to visit, makes it impossible to verify the figures. The same difficulty exists for verifying casualties from U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan and Somalia.
The office of Obama's counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, declined to comment for this article, saying it does not speak about specific operations. The Yemeni government referred Human Rights Watch to a recent speech in which President Hadi lauded U.S. drone strikes but did not respond to specific questions about the al-Bayda attack.
U.S. officials, including Brennan, argue that the United States has authority under both domestic and international law to conduct targeted killings because the country is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. International law permits targeted killings of enemy fighters in battle zones and of people posing an imminent risk to life in law enforcement situations. However, U.S. officials have failed to explain how they make this determination in areas that are far from a traditional battlefield.
Washington also says that the vast majority of those killed are militants and that civilian casualties are "exceedingly rare." But, citing national security, it refuses to disclose how many militant suspects and civilians it has killed, or the legal basis for placing suspected militants on a kill list. Nor will it detail what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties or investigate attacks in which civilians are killed.
Governments have an obligation under international law to investigate and provide redress for unlawful attacks. In Afghanistan, NATO members -- including the United States -- have recognized the value of compensating civilians for loss of life or other damage, even when the attacks are lawful.