Sanaa, Yemen – In his counterterrorism speech on May 27, US President Barack Obama stopped short of an apology when he acknowledged civilian casualties by American drones, saying: “Those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”
For Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, 54, and his rural village of Khashamir in Yemen’s eastern Hadhramaut province, one deadly accident continues to exact a heavy toll.
Last year the community was hit by a lethal drone strike, killing family members. Today the villagers still suffer their loss, and from mental trauma sustained by a continual buzzing of drones overhead.
The circumstances behind the strike are tragic. Faisal said his brother-in-law, a respected, 49-year old cleric called Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, delivered a forceful sermon denouncing al-Qaeda’s extremism at the local mosque.
Salem’s worried father feared retribution from pro-al-Qaeda fighters. He asked Faisal to advise his son to tone down his rhetoric. But when confronted, the imam bravely said he would rather die knowing he was preaching the right message.
Salem’s fate was sealed a few days later, on August 29. Three strangers – in retrospect, suspected fighters – drove into the village, searching for the outspoken cleric.
They found Salem at the mosque that night, surrounded by worshippers. They convinced him to talk with them outside by a palm grove. Faisal’s nephew, Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, a 20-year old with the traffic police, accompanied him for protection.
“It was after the evening prayer and I was sitting on my balcony,” Faisal said, recalling that moment. “There was a light and then a big noise – I thought the mountains would fall.”
Four drone strikes in total, a few minutes apart, violently tore Salem, Walid and the three visitors to shreds. Amidst the pandemonium, villagers cowering inside the mosque ran out for safety between strikes, believing they would die inside.
|Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber is a drone strike survivor who had two relatives killed [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]|
“You cannot imagine what we found,” said Faisal, drawing a slow, deep breath as he described the nighttime chaos that followed. “We found body parts scattered everywhere. We tried to collect them all, and brought them to the mosque to wrap in white cloth.”
The repercussions were devastating. The villagers marched the next day, chanting: “Obama, why do you spill our blood?” But President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi met their pleas for answers with silence.
Salem’s mother died two weeks later apparently from shock. Faisal’s sister Hayat, the mother of Walid, refuses to leave her home, and said she is “waiting to join my son”. Faisal’s daughter Heba was so stricken with fear she didn’t leave her home for twenty days. She still needs psychiatric care.
“The people in the village are so afraid now,” Faisal sighed. “Everything has changed. They think they can be killed anywhere.”
Rights groups say the damage is serious. “All that local communities see is the damage and destruction,” said Letta Taylor, a counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Nothing that suggests that the US and Yemeni authorities care about the consequences.”
“Obama said in his speech that he was ‘haunted’ by the civilian deaths, but he never apologised,” she said. “This falls far from the official apology and redress that the US and Yemeni government should be offering to the families of civilians killed in these strikes.”
President Obama declared that the US will continue to “act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and that before any strike “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured”.
Analysts point to the key terms “imminent threat” and “near-certainty” as some of those that need to be more clearly defined.
On June 1, just days after Obama’s counterterrorism talk, a possible drone strike killed up to eight suspects linked to al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen’s southern province of Abyan.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been up to 154 strikes by US drones in Yemen since 2002, with up to 97 civilians included in the almost 800 total killed in the attacks.
Both the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conduct drone strikes in Yemen. The CIA operates from a secret base in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and was responsible for the September 2011 hit on US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The US Pentagon bases its drone fleet at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.
US Attorney General Eric Holder recently admitted that four US citizens have been killed by drone attacks. While al-Awlaki was directly targeted, he said that the other three, including al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son Abdulrahman, were not.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have filed a joint lawsuit on behalf of the families of US citizens killed in drone strikes.
Pardiss Kebriaei, a CCR attorney on the case, said that since the government has now acknowledged its actions, “it should be prepared to defend them, not only in a letter to Congress, but in court.”
‘How can we stop it?’
One person who grew up under drones is Entsar al-Qadhi, a representative with the National Dialogue’s counterterrorism subcommittee. Her central province of Marib was first hit in 2002, and has been a common target for surveillance and strikes in recent years.
Al-Qadhi smiled grimly. “Before, there was a general interest in listening to Osama Bin Laden’s speech and finding out what he will do next, and how he will terrorise people more,” she said. “Now, we listen to Obama’s speech to find out how he will next terrorise us.”
|Villagers have protested against the deadly drone strikes [Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber/Al Jazeera]|
Al-Qadhi believes the Yemeni government needs to transform its counterterrorism strategy to a grassroots approach involving communities.
“There have been discussions with tribal members about the presence of AQAP among them,” she said. “There was a tribal agreement to kick people out if they are affiliated with AQAP. This is a more successful method than targeting with drones, where everyone is affected.”
Meanwhile, the psychological scars for drone strike survivors fester.
Peter Schaapveld, a psychologist sent by British Charity REPRIVE to south Yemen to investigate the symptoms, uncovered some dire statistics.
Out of his pool of survivors, he found 70 percent to be suffering from formal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and virtually all were suffering from some symptoms of PTSD.
Schaapveld warns that as long as they continue living under a drone threat, their symptoms will only worsen.
“There is basically a breakdown of society as a result of this,” he said. “Children were not going to school, or if they were the school teachers did not understand PTSD and sent them home. They were not benefiting from an education, and this is storing up problems for later.”
“Where there was a strike on the market area, daily commerce was starting to break down,” Schaapveld added. “People were not going to the markets, because to meet in those areas meant they might be subject to another strike.”
Faisal Ahmed bin Ali Jaber from Khashamir village believes there are three ways to combat extremism: to raise awareness, provide jobs, and as a final resort, people can fight the militants themselves.
“We can stop the extremists,” he said somberly. “But the question is – how can we stop the drones falling on our heads?”