National Security

The Price of War

A new report details the civilian costs of U.S. drone strikes -- and failures to compensate the families of victims. 

On a sultry evening in August 2012, five men gathered under a cluster of date palms near the local mosque in Khashamir, a village of stone and mud houses in southeastern Yemen. Two of the men were locals and well known in their community. The other three were strangers.

Moments later, U.S. drones tore across the sky and launched four Hellfire missiles at the men. The first three missiles killed four of the men instantly, blasting their body parts across the grounds of the mosque. The final strike took out the fifth man as he tried to crawl to safety.

Yemen's Defense Ministry described the three strangers as members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that the United States calls al Qaeda's most active branch. The men were killed, ministry officials said, while "meeting their fellows."

But these two "fellows" had no known links to AQAP. Rather, they were precisely the kind of Yemenis that the United States has sought as allies in its fight against al Qaeda. One, Salim Jaber, was a 42-year-old cleric and father of seven who preached against violence committed in the name of Islam. The other was the cleric's 26-year-old cousin Walid Jaber, one of the village's few police officers.

Just three days before his death, Salim Jaber had delivered a particularly adamant sermon against AQAP at the Khashamir mosque. The three strangers then showed up in the village in search of the cleric, relatives of the Jabers said. Fearful that the men might be seeking revenge for his sermon, Salim met with them only after his cousin offered to accompany him for protection.

Salim Jaber is yet another innocent casualty in America's covert war on terror. His case is one of six that I document in a new report for Human Rights Watch about the toll of America's largely unacknowledged air strikes in Yemen. All six strikes were so-called targeted killings, the deliberate slaying of a specific person by a government under color of law. All six raise questions about the legality of the Obama administration's targeted killing program. All six help explain why many Yemenis fear the United States more than they fear AQAP.

On President Obama's watch, the United States is estimated to have carried out hundreds of targeted strikes that have killed thousands of people, primarily in Pakistan but also in Yemen and Somalia. The Obama administration acknowledges the program's existence but, with rare exceptions, refuses to publicly confirm individual strikes, including the six that I investigated during two trips to Yemen.  Among the details that the United States will not reveal are how many people it has killed, including civilians. It also refuses to detail the full legal framework under which it carries out the killings, or what actions it takes, if any, when attacks go awry.

In Yemen, it's an open secret that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have carried out an estimated 80 targeted killings in the country since 2009, killing more than 470 people, most with drone-launched missiles. Yet the United States has only formally acknowledged the two strikes that killed three American citizens: the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom U.S. officials described as chief of foreign operations for AQAP; Samir Khan, the editor of AQAP's English-language magazine, Inspire; and Awlaki's teenage son Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in an attack that targeted someone else.

It's as if the hundreds of Yemenis also killed in U.S. strikes -- including dozens of civilians -- never existed. "We Yemenis are the ones who pay the price of the ‘war on terror,'" said Faisal Jaber, a relative of the two Jaber cousins killed in Khashamir. "We are caught between a drone on one side and al Qaeda on the other." 

Salim Jaber, who had been preaching against Islamist violence for more than a year prior to his death, lived in the coastal city of Mukallah but had come home to Khashamir for a relative's wedding. In the sermon he delivered at the Khashamir mosque the Friday before he was killed, "He used harsh words and challenged them [AQAP] to provide proof of the justness of their attacks on America, and invited them to a debate," said Faisal Jaber during an interview in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. The day before the attack, Faisal added, he asked Salim to tone down his sermons.

"I said, ‘You should be careful, your family is worried that something will happen to you.' Salim said, ‘If we all keep silent then who will speak out? If we keep silent, these people will destroy the country.'"

Twice on Aug. 29, the day of the strike, a black Suzuki Vitara sports utility vehicle with unmarked plates stopped outside Salim Jaber's family home. The second time, the three strangers inside the car sent neighborhood children to ask for the cleric to come out. Salim's father went to the car and told the men that his son would return after Isha, the evening prayer. When the prayer ended, several villagers saw the three strangers drive to the back entrance of the mosque. Salim was standing in the front of the mosque with a group of friends.

The three men summoned the cleric, again through a village boy. Wary, Salim told his friends he thought it best to meet the men over dinner at his house. But when his cousin, Walid Jaber, who was carrying his police handgun, offered to accompany him, Salim agreed to walk to the back of the mosque and meet the men. "Walid said, ‘We are both men, what are you scared of? It is not good manners,'" Faisal Jaber said.

Salim and Walid approached the three strangers and sat with two of them beneath the date palms. Several men from the village gathered at a corner to watch, fearing the strangers might try to harm the Jabers. But, even if that was the strangers' intent, the drones struck first.

"The first of the missiles hit the circle of men directly," Faisal said. "When the men [villagers] heard it, they all ran toward the spot where it landed. Then the second missile struck and shrapnel flew over their heads. The third missile came from an angle and took off the roof of the car and hit them again. The fourth missile took a bit of time. Maybe they were checking to see if they were still alive. They [the villagers] saw a man crawling and the fourth missile hit that man and his body was thrown 20 meters or more onto the wall of a sheep's manger near the mosque. His body was intact. Only the back of his head was gone."

The villagers waited several minutes and then approached slowly, said Abdullah Jaber, a cousin of Salim and Walid who was among those at the scene. "It was dark except for the burning car," Abdullah Jaber said. "We could make out many body parts scattered several meters apart -- fingers, hands, internal organs. Most bodies had no legs and one was without a face. Another had no head. Until now they still have not found that head.... Imagine this horror."

Ahmad Jaber, Salim's 79-year-old father, said he heard the explosions and arrived at the mosque as villagers were collecting body parts in red and blue water pails.  "No one dared tell me," he said. "Finally, one of them came to me and took my hand and said, ‘Where is Salim?' I said I did not know, that we were waiting for him to have dinner with us. He said, ‘Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah [Praise God, Praise God, Praise God], Salim is dead.'''

Later that night, two men brought Ahmad Jaber into the mosque and supported him by each arm as he viewed the corpses, wrapped in plastic under blocks of ice, as the village had no refrigerated morgue. "The people opened the first bag and asked, ‘Is this Salim?' I said, ‘No.' They opened the second bag, and the third, and the fourth. Then they opened the last one. It was Salim. At that point, I could not move."

Relatives said they identified Salim only by a few remaining bits of his face and beard, and Walid by the remains of his handgun and his ornate belt, which was somehow intact.

Faisal Jaber showed Human Rights Watch a series of photos and videos he had taken the day before and the day after the strike. The set from before the strike showed Walid dancing and Salim smiling at the wedding party that the cleric had come home to attend. Walid's ornate belt is clasped around his white robe. The set from after the strike showed the three strangers' vehicle melted into a twisted mass behind the mosque and remnants of what Human Rights Watch later identified as Hellfire missiles. The photos also showed dismembered body parts and faces burned beyond recognition. They showed holes from missile fragments in the walls of nearby homes and the date palms' broken branches. The trees had been the pride of the village; today, they no longer bear fruit.

Every man, woman, and child in Khashamir has seen the photos and videos, Faisal Jaber said. "Now when villagers see these images," he added, "they think of America."

One theory in Khashamir about why Salim and Walid were killed is that the U.S. government  assumed the cousins were militants because they were meeting with the three alleged AQAP members. If so, the Jabers' deaths would underscore the peril of so-called signature strikes, in which the Obama administration reportedly targets individuals based on patterns of behavior rather than specific knowledge that they were engaged in hostilities against the United States.

Another theory is that the United States decided the Jaber cousins were acceptable collateral damage -- the wartime calculus allowing civilians to be killed during an attack on an enemy target, provided that the anticipated military gain outweighs the loss of civilian lives. But it's hard to imagine how the military advantage of killing the three alleged militants -- none of them known AQAP leaders -- outweighed the loss of an anti-AQAP cleric.

The Obama administration justifies targeted killings by asserting that it is in a global war against al Qaeda and "associated forces," such as AQAP, which can indeed pose a serious threat. Yet more than 12 years after the September 11 attacks, it's far from clear that the struggle between the United States and these groups amounts to an armed conflict as recognized by international humanitarian law or the laws of war.  Even if one were to accept the Obama administration's concept of a global war against al Qaeda, the laws of war require parties to a conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm. The veil of secrecy that shrouds U.S. targeted strikes -- even when they kill civilians -- makes it impossible to know whether the United States has made that effort. The silence also adds to the difficulties families face in seeking redress for unlawful deaths.

Two of the attacks I investigated in Yemen indiscriminately killed civilians in a clear violation of the laws of war. One was a strike in 2012 near the central Yemeni city of Radaa that destroyed a sports utility vehicle and killed 12 villagers, including a pregnant woman and three children. The presumed target, an alleged local leader of AQAP, had been traveling along the same road but was nowhere in sight when the missile struck the car. Relatives found the charred bodies of their loved ones coated in the sugar and flour that they were bringing home from the local market.  

The other indiscriminate attack, a pre-dawn strike in 2009 on the hamlet of al-Majalah in southeast Yemen, killed 14 alleged militants in a suspected training camp -- but also 41 Bedouins sleeping in two other encampments nearby. Cruise missiles launched by the U.S. Navy showered hundreds of cluster munitions on the sleeping nomads, two-thirds of them women and children. Indiscriminate weapons that pose unacceptable dangers to civilians, cluster munitions carry a large number of so-called "bomblets" and disperse these explosives over a wide area, causing mass carnage. Nearly four years after the al-Majalah attack, the site remains littered with unexploded bomblets that make it too dangerous to enter.

In the other four strikes that I investigated, including the one that killed the Jabers, the evidence suggests that the United States took out alleged AQAP members who may not have been valid targets under the laws of war or that the strikes caused disproportionate civilian harm.

During his confirmation hearings in February to become the next director of the CIA, John Brennan, then Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, said the United States worked with local governments to compensate families in the "rare instances" of wrongful deaths and carried out reviews of such strikes. My investigations found no evidence of that in Yemen.

After Human Rights Watch and other organizations began pressing the U.S. and Yemeni authorities about redress, the Yemeni government compensated some relatives of civilians killed in U.S. attacks. But payments have been haphazard, slow to come, and, in many cases, inadequate. In the case of the 2009 attack that killed 41 Bedouins, the families of those killed have received compensation only for their meager possessions -- mostly goats and beehives -- lost in the attack, not for their dead relatives.

After the airstrike in Khashamir that killed Salim and Walid Jaber, enraged villagers created a roadblock that stopped government cars along the main road through the province. It ended when local leaders persuaded them villagers to rally peacefully instead. Most of the village joined a march four days after the strike, chanting "No to killing innocents" and "Obama, this is wrong."

Local authorities arranged for a stipend for Salim's eldest son, who is deaf and mute, and promised they would find the young man a job upon completion of his studies. The family also received an apologetic phone call from an officer with Yemen's U.S.-funded and trained Counter-Terrorism Unit, Faisal Jaber said. In June, the office of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi told the Jabers that the government would provide condolence payments of 2.5 million Yemeni rials ($11,600) each to Salim and Walid's families. But, when Human Rights Watch last contacted Faisal Jaber two weeks ago, the payments had yet to arrive.

In a speech last May, President Obama for the first time outlined his administration's policies on targeted killings. Among other measures, Obama said, the United States does not strike unless there is "near-certainty" that civilians will not be harmed. The White House has refused to say when that policy was or will be implemented, and it did not respond to queries about the attack that killed Salim and Walid Jaber and the other strikes that I investigated.

The new evidence of civilian deaths that Human Rights Watch found in the field underscores that it is long past time for the Obama administration to go public on how many people it is killing in targeted strikes, how many of those killed are civilians, how many attacks were unlawful, and what the United States is doing to ensure that future attacks comply with international law. As the voices of the victims slowly emerge, the United States needs to stop covering its ears and start taking action.

-/AFP/Getty Images


'This Is Not How a Protection Racket Is Supposed to Work'

Why the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are increasingly at odds.

When Saudi Arabia rejected its U.N. Security Council seat on Friday, the move caught nearly everyone off-guard. In retrospect, it shouldn't have.

In recent months, the United States has increasingly pursued a foreign policy at odds with its Persian Gulf ally, scaling back assistance to the Saudi-backed Egyptian military, abruptly dropping its plans to attack Syria despite Saudi support, and entering into a new round of nuclear talks with the kingdom's  regional rival, Iran. According to U.N. diplomats and officials, the Security Council move merely reflected the Saudis' deeper anxiety over the course of American diplomacy in the Middle East, exposing a deepening rift in one of America's most important and longstanding alliances in the region. In short, Saudi Arabia's U.N. snub was a sign of the monarchy's mounting panic over the possible demise of its special relationship with Washington.

For decades, Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood --relatively inexpensive oil -- to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the U.S. arms industry. But America's failure to back Saudi Arabia on matters it considers vital to its security is raising questions in Riyadh about the value of that exchange.

"This is not how a protection racket is supposed to work," said Christopher Davidson, a scholar and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. "Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship it thought it had in the bag, despite having handed over several percent of their GDP to Western arms companies." As a result, he said, "Saudi Arabia is retreating into its shell of countries that surround it and who rely on its aid and good will."

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has sought to take matters into its own hands.

When the U.S. threatened to withhold financial assistance from Egypt's generals following their overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy, the Saudi king held a fundraising campaign -- undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement between the generals and Morsy's government. As Secretary of State John Kerry applies pressure on the Syrian National Council to talk with the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis have sent precisely the opposite messages to the rebels they're funding. The Saudis, have resisted attempts by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to visit and have applied little pressure on its allies within the Syrian opposition, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The Saudis have made no secret of their displeasure over U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to call off his cruise missiles and negotiate a deal with Russia to work to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program. On October 7, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal abruptly cancelled plans to deliver his government address to the U.N. General Assembly; the move was widely viewed as a response to the Security Council's endorsement of the Syrian chemical weapons deal. "They saw that as a complete capitulation," said one U.N.-based diplomat.

In protest, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief announced that Riyadh will dial back  cooperation with Washington to train and equip Syrian rebels. "Our interests increasingly don’t align," a U.S. official told the paper.

A further sign of pique: the Saudis didn't even inform America's top diplomats in New York that they planned to abandon the Security Council. The Saudi protest at the U.N., according to Davidson, constituted a kind of cry for attention, an effort to "shock and wake up their erstwhile allies."

From Riyadh's perspective, the Syrian civil war represents a pivotal front in an existential political and religious struggle for influence in the region, pitting Iran's Shiite rulers against predominantly Sunni Arab rulers. "There is a realization in Riyadh that it is time for the major Arab powers to prepare a response for maintaining order in the Arab world and to counter Iran's expanding infiltrative policies," Nawaf Obaid, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,  wrote in Al-Monitor. "The kingdom and its regional allies will increase their support to the Syrian rebels and prevent a collapse of collateral nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The removal of the tyrannical regime in Damascus is simply too important for the future of the Arabs."

Kerry today met with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister for a two-hour lunch, where he assured the Saudi diplomat that Washington remained committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon or continuing to destabilize the region. The two also "discussed the decision by Saudi Arabia to decline the seat on the UNSC," according to a senior administration official. "Secretary Kerry conveyed that while it is Saudi Arabia's decision to make, the U.S. values Saudi Arabia's leadership in the region and the international community and a seat on the UNSC affords member states the opportunity to engage directly on these issues."

Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, said that the Saudis' latest decision to abandon their Security Council ambitions reflects mounting concern in Riyadh that the council seat could be a "trap" that will increases pressure on the ruling family to support diplomatic measures in Syria and Iran that it opposes.

"If the Saudis were to join the U.N. Security Council they would have to follow the U.S. and Russia's lead," Landis told Foreign Policy. "There would be heavy pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop subsidizing Salafist militias in Syria and they don't want to do it. Russia and America would say ‘Look, you are part of the United Nations and you have to sever your ties with the Syrian rebels and stop sending them arms and money.' But Saudi Arabia doesn't want to rein them in."

Landis said that the Saudi reliance on jihadists to pursues its goal of unseating Assad risks further fracturing the Saudis' relations with the United States, which he added, may eventually view the Saudi-backed jihadists as a greater threat than even Assad. Some regional specialists say that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship is too important for both sides not to find a way to overcome their current differences. Indeed, even as U.S. and Saudi officials differ over the approach to regional security, American arms deal continue apace, including this recent U.S. deal to sell $460 million in cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

But others, like Davidson, believe that the relationship has fundamentally changed. The United States is emerging a major global energy supplier in its own right, lessening  its dependency on Saudi oil. "America is not locked into the same kind of relationship that we have seen over the past few decades;  it has more room to maneuver than it had in the past," Davidson said.

But the question on many U.N. diplomats' minds was why the Saudis went to so much trouble to win a Security Council seat if they had no intention of serving out its terms. Over the past three years, Saudi official undertook an intensive lobbying campaign to win support for its bid, enrolled more than a dozen Saudi diplomats in a year-long course on the Security Council at Columbia University. The erratic way in which the Saudi government managed the issue at the United Nations, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and outside experts, reflected the personal and emotional way in which the Saudi Royal family sometimes confronts diplomatic problems.

Anybody who witnessed the Saudi U.N. envoy's reaction to the Security Council vote in the General Assembly could tell he had no idea what his political masters were planning. "It is a defining moment in the Kingdom's history. As one of the founding members of the United Nations our election is much to rejoice over," Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, who looked ecstatic after the vote, flashing a thumbs up. "We welcome the positive shift as well as challenges of being part of the Security Council body."

But a day later, the Saudi foreign ministry pulled the rug out from underneath his feet, issuing a statement thanking the more than 170 countries that backed its first ever Security Council bid. At the same time, it said it had no intention of filling its seat, denouncing the council's application of "double standards" that promotes the "expansion of the injustices" as well as "violations of rights and the spread of conflicts around the world."

"Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands by idly" constitutes "irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities," according to the statement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the statement added, "announces its apology for not accepting membership to the Security Council until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security."

The Saudi action has left the U.N. in something of a quandary. On Saturday, the U.N. Arab Group, which includes all the U.N.'s Arab governments, issued an appeal to Saudi Arabia to reconsider its decision and take up the seat. "They could simply leave the seat vacant by not showing up. That would allow them to show up at any time in the future during the two year membership on the Security Council," said one senior U.N.-based official. "Or they could inform the GA president that they are withdrawing, prompting a new election. Who knows what the king (and it must be the king) is thinking." Today, however, Arab governments appeared to have had a change of heart, expressing support for the Saudi decision.

Others say the Saudis may be overplaying their hand.

"The twin Saudi decisions to give up their speaking slot in the General Debate in the General Assembly and their elected seat on the Security Council suggest a worrisome retreat from global diplomatic engagement," Edward Luck, the dean of the University of San Diego School of Peace Studies. "To the Saudis, the game in the Council may appear rigged, but it is the only game in town."

"It would be a blow for stability in the turbulent Middle East and for the interests that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share in the region if Riyadh gives up on open multilateral diplomacy," he added. "Regional bodies, weak and increasingly divided along the Shia- Sunni fault line, will not provide an alternative to the UN. More global involvement is needed in the region, not less, especially in the end game in Syria. Many in the West are already worried about alleged Saudi support for more radical elements in the Syrian opposition.  They could prove to be the biggest obstacles to attaining both peace and justice in Syria and stability in its neighborhood."

Luck said it is only inevitable that the Saudis would "be extremely sensitive to any signs of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, no matter how modest and tentative. But much of the action on sanctions and curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions will be in the Security Council. If Riyadh wanted a bigger voice on these existential matters, it should have taken its seat. The Saudi refusal to join the Council can only be seen as a victory for its Iranian rivals."

-/AFP/Getty Images