The U.S. says it was hunting militants on August 8. The dead boys' brother has a different story.
Arfag al-Marwani finished his last minute shopping for the Eid al Fitr holiday by midnight, just enough time to enjoy a few hours of rest before the holiday's dawn Fajr prayers. A 28-year-old laborer, Arfag had recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia and planned on spending the time with his family. It was August 8.
Just before making his final holiday preparations, he received a troubling phone call. Before the holiday celebrations could begin, he would have to carry out one final task.
There had been some sort of car accident involving his brothers: 24-year-old Abdullah, 17-year-old Hassan and 16-year-old Hussein. They too were on their way to the family home after finishing some last minute Eid shopping. Arfag's thoughts drifted to news reports of the seven U.S. drone strikes in the past 11 days -- one of which already targeted al Qaeda suspects in his home province of Marib. Arfag hoped that his young brothers weren't somehow caught in the drone crossfire.
It took Arfag half an hour to reach the wreckage. Amidst the eerie quiet of the Maribi countryside, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of his brothers' mangled vehicle.
The strike that killed Arfag's three brothers was the eighth out of nine total air attacks launched between July 27 and August 10. It was part of a spastic attempt to thwart what U.S. officials claimed was an al Qaeda plot to attack American interests. But the drone campaign may have only created more support for the militants, if Arfag and his grieving family are to be believed.
Government officials told the press that the strike's targets were all al Qaeda militants. But the victims' families say just the opposite was true: that the two teenagers and their older brother were innocent bystanders.
"Everything inside the car seemed to have been flung out of the windows by the force of the blast," said Arfag, describing what he found at the wreckage that night.
"I found their bodies lying nearby -- decapitated."
Arfag carried the bodies of Abdullah, Hassan and Hussein to the trunk of his car one by one along with what remained of Eid gifts his brothers' had purchased just a few hours earlier.
"They purchased two outfits for their little nieces, desserts, and a lot of fireworks. We all enjoy the Eid fireworks -- they weren't just for the boys," said Arfag.
Arfag notified the rest of his family before he began the 50 mile drive north where the family would prepare the bodies for burial in a nearby cemetery the following day.
"Mom took pictures with her mobile phone of all of them, along with the [charred] gifts they had bought," Arfag continued.
The August 8 strike has outraged the residents of Marib, a governorate where al Qaeda maintains a strong presence. According to some security analysts, that outrage over drone strikes directed toward the U.S. may do more harm than good in a long term struggle against AQAP, as the local Qaeda affiliate is known.
"This case gets at what I believe to be the Achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: a lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence," said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and American's War in Arabia.
According to the Yemeni government, the August 8 drone strike was successful in "killing three brothers and members of al Qaeda."
But locals, including the victims' relatives, insisted that the three brothers had no affiliation with al Qaeda. They were only local boys returning from a holiday shopping trip in the city of Marib, the relatives insist.
While governorate officials claim to know little about the three brothers or why they were targeted, Marib locals and family members deny they had been engaged in any forms of militancy.
Hasan al-Abeidi (not his real name) is a 24-year-old-resident of the troublesome Wadi Abeeda district. He was one of many that insisted the strike simply killed two innocent children riding with their older brother.
"I'm against the random [drone] strikes. Most of the time, innocent people are the victims." al-Abeidi said, echoing the sentiments of Maribis growing increasing frustrated and desperate.
One spokesperson for Marib's governor expressed uncertainty. He said his office didn't know if those killed were al Qaeda members. The spokesperson did state, however, that the large al-Marwan tribe, based in the far north and bordering al Jawf province, is said to have links to some al Qaeda members. Exactly what those links were, the spokesman wouldn't say.
The head of the Marib Investigation Department believed the brothers did have some affiliation with militants.
"Of course they did, otherwise they wouldn't have been targeted [by the drone]," said Colonel Abdulghani Buhaibeh. "They were sheltering [al Qaeda]. And their father... is [an al Qaeda] sympathizer."
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa declined to comment on the strike but referred to previous statements given by President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials, including CIA Director John Brennan.
"Our intelligence community has multiple ways to determine, with a high degree of confidence, that the individual being targeted is indeed the al Qaeda terrorist we are seeking," said Brenan in a speech at the Wilson Center last year.
Amid a bevy of confusion and exasperated desperation over the death of the brothers, one member of the al-Marwani family stated that the only reason they may have been targeted was claims of Abdullah al-Marwani's hosting of the Yemeni-U.S. born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in his last days before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
"[That's all his past links to Qaeda] otherwise, he had nothing to do with al Qaeda," said a family member, requesting to remain anonymous.
Marib locals have also expressed fear that the actions of their tribes may make them targets for U.S. strikes. Kinship ties run deeply in northern Yemen; if even one tribesman disagreed with the actions of some of his fellow tribesmen, turning them over to the authorities would amount to an unforgiveable betrayal. Gregory Johnsen also warned of complicated kinship ties that could exacerbate outrage among fellow tribesmen -- independent of any religious of ideological belief except for loyalty to family.
In the almost frantic desire to thin the numbers of al Qaeda, the U.S. government has carried out hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in recent years. According to a Human Rights Watch reports released late last month, the U.S. is estimated to have conducted 81 targeted killing operations in Yemen, one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. Research groups report that at least 473 people have been killed in these strikes, the majority of them combatants but many of them civilians.
A resident from Wadi Abeeda, a main stronghold of al Qaeda, has observed militant activities for years and states that every drone strike is followed by outrage that is then used by al Qaeda as a recruiting tool.
"It could be a brother, a cousin or even a neighbor siding with al Qaeda over opposition to U.S. drone strikes. In some cases, entire tribes have joined," said the 32-year-old. He also notes that several local young men have joined al Qaeda after being shown video footage of civilian deaths in Yemeni and U.S. strikes.
"Some even look at it from the extrajudicial killing perspective, no matter how guilty the targeted person is," he added, asking to remain anonymous because he fears militant reprisals.
Johnsen explains that the vast majority of AQAP members of Yemenis and are able to take advantage of their more established tribal and familial associations, allowing them to move more freely than foreign fighters as was often the case in Afghanistan.
"You can have situations where someone in Yemen is providing refuge to an al Qaeda member not because the man is a fighter but rather on the basis of his tribal identity," said Johnsen. "Hitting such targets presents a nearly intractable problem for the US, when it is essentially firing missiles at men it doesn't know well."
Locals acknowledge that the drone strikes have targeted many of the high profile militants. But these residents maintain that the airstrikes also hit the wrong people, driving some to anger and eventually to militancy.
The August 8th strike rings a familiar bell with many previous mistakes in a region where a number of civilians have been slain. That includes a 2009 strike that killed deputy Governor of Marib, Jabir al-Shabwani, who was tasked with negotiating al Qaeda's surrender. The death of al-Shabwani, a respected community leader, has driven a number of locals, including from his family, to fight alongside al Qaeda despite their strong opposition to the group's religious ideology.
Arfag said his father, a 60-year-old oil worker, has many questions for his government to answer, including why assassination was preferred to capture.
"They had just been around all the government offices [in central Marib] and left unchallenged," said Arfag, quoting his father. The local government -- loyal to Yemen's president and a close U.S. ally -- does not exercise control of large swaths of territory in Marib. But the center of the city is different. There, the government maintains its grip. And that is precisely where the three brothers went shopping. It's not out of the question that they could've been captured instead of killed from on high.
Arfag painfully recalled the bright future of his brother Hassan, preparing for his wedding scheduled only days after his death. Like so many Marib residents, he longs for a day when both al Qaeda and the U.S. stop interfering with their lives.
"America is sowing hatred in people's hearts and each strike cultivates more hatred. Even children [in our family] curse America now. I used to think of a life. I used to love all [people] and look forward to the future."