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.