Yemen – On a road flanked by mountains and dusty plains, sixth-grader Mohammed Taeiman was travelling with a family friend to the Hareeb region of Marib province, east of the capital Sanaa, when the car was targeted in a drone strike.
It wasn’t long before the news broke out locally.
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The younger Taeiman had been killed in a CIA drone strike, the first since the prime minister and president resigned amid a standoff with the Houthi rebels on January 26.
When Mikdad Taeiman, Mohammed’s older brother, saw the charred black Suzuki Vitara, he knew his brother was inside. By then, pictures of the incident were circulating on mobile phones.
“My brother was going to school. He was a good student. He knew nothing,” said the older brother, vehemently denying suggestions that his brother was involved with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
On hearing the news, Mahla Aamer Saila, Mohammed’s mother, fainted, and was taken to hospital. She blamed the president and the minister of defence for “cooperating with America”.
Mohammed’s father and older brother were killed in a drone strike in 2011. A third brother was wounded in another drone attack.
Three days prior to the strike, Taeiman travelled to Sanaa for medical treatment. “If he was an AQAP suspect, why didn’t they arrest him, try him in the court, prove he is AQAP?” Mikdad furiously shouted down the phone line.
“How can a 12-year-old be trained by al-Qaeda? They are liars. America said this to justify their actions,” he insisted.
Yemen is without a government, but this hasn’t slowed down Washington’s counterterrorism operations in the country. In fact, the strikes have intensified.
In the last week alone, two more strikes were carried out in counterterrorism and Dhamar killing three suspected al-Qaeda militants.
Former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi once stated that he individually approved each drone strike. But in his absence, questions have been raised about US intelligence-gathering and actual operations in the country.
“It is a valid question – since we don’t have a ministry of interior or defence,” said Baraa Shiban, an activist and project coordinator for human rights organisation, Reprieve.
Last week, there were news reports that the Pentagon and White House will continue with US drone strikes, signalling the US still has reliable allies on the ground.
If he was an AQAP suspect, why didn't they arrest him, try him in the court, prove he is AQAP? How can a 12-year-old be trained by al-Qaeda? They are liars. America said this to justify their actions.
But Marib’s residents, including Mikdad, question who the “reliable allies” are, insisting the US has an alliance with the Houthi rebels, in spite of their “death to America” propaganda.
Preparing to fight the Houthis, Mikdad said: “Clearly there is an alliance between the Houthis and the US, because the US wants to settle a score with al-Islah [Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood] party.”
International lawyer Radidja Nemar said that the US and the Houthis do have a common enemy, even if they are not officially allies, so their alliance could be likely.
But Houthi spokeperson, Hussain al-Bukhaiti, denied any security coordination with the US. “There is no security or intelligence cooperation with the US,” al-Bukhaiti told Al Jazeera, “and there will be no such thing in future.”
US-based Yemen analyst Fernando Carvajal said the US and Yemen have legal agreements ratified by Yemen’s parliament for security cooperation. “The presidency is an institution of constitutional continuity, and President Hadi was part of that continuity established by Saleh.”
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Saleh is believed to have signed a $400m deal with the Bush administration, as part of which the US created a “counterterrorism camp” in Yemen.
Carvajal maintains the counterterrorism actions are not a violation of sovereignty because there is a treaty agreement in place.
However, Nemar warns there are rules governing the use of force in this situation.
“Anticipatory” self-defence and Article 51 of the UN Charter permits invocations of self-defence only in response to an armed attack.
“The legal basis in the absence of clear Yemeni approval [and even this is subject to discussion], is thus very unclear and unstable,” she said, adding that the US would need a Security Council resolution giving them the mandate, which they do not have.
The US’ principal domestic legislative basis offered to justify drone strikes is the Authorisation to Use Military Force, passed one week after 9/11.
However, “the consequences of such an authorisation are the lack of oversight and transparency especially for CIA-led strikes that are based on secret information and seem to act outside the realm of the law,” Nemar said.
Despite the unanimous vote by Yemen’s parliament in December 2013 to stop the use of unmanned aircraft to combat al-Qaeda, little has changed.
MP Abdul-Bari Dugaish said parliament has to do more than just vote if it wants to see tangible results. “But the political process is stalling it, and the parliament is tenuous, hence we have not been able to discuss this forward.”
In a speech, President Obama defended the use of unmanned aircrafts and said his administration had devised a Presidential Policy Guidance as a “framework that governs our use of force against terrorists”.
However, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that since Obama took office, the death toll has been between 418 and 623, and includes nearly 100 civilians, of which eight were children.
With three drone strikes this week, and in the absence of a government, civilians feel vulnerable, helpless and despondent.
“In terms of international human rights law, the US has the obligation not to violate the right to life of Yemeni civilians, and they have failed,” Nemar said.
Families are still shocked by the attack on the wedding convoy that killed 14 people in al-Baydah in 2013.
Mohammed al-Hunahi, a lawyer with the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, insisted killing children in this manner is a crime.
“There are a lot of Yemeni organisations fighting for civilian rights, but there is no government or anyone to go to,” Hunahi said.
Both MPs and non-governmental organisations agree it’s hard to come up with solutions now because the focus has shifted on resolving the government crisis.
For Hisham al-Omeisy, a Sanaa-based political analyst, current strikes will surely spark debate beyond the usual human and psychological impact on targeted communities to that of the opportunistic violation of the sovereignty of state.
Moving forward, Dugaish insisted the parliament should discuss the strategy with their US counterpart to find a different method to fight counterterrorism as drones have proven ineffective.
“If the media hadn’t disclosed he was a child, it would have gone unnoticed as three al-Qaeda suspects not knowing who these three people were,” said Shiban.
Mikdad denied receiving any financial support from al-Qaeda. “So far we’ve only sought help from Islamic organisations.”
Still seething, Mikdad said the Taeiman tribes attacked the power station in Marib two days after the incident. The US embassy hasn’t contacted the family or offered any compensation.
Even then, he feels, money can’t get back his loved ones. “People here continue to live in fear, with drones hovering 4 to 5 hours a day, anticipating when death will beckon.”
“When people lose their trust and confidence with the central state because they feel the state is approving these drone strikes, it creates instability and more hostility towards the government,” Shiban said.
With the rise in drone attacks, Mikdad told Al Jazeera, more people are joining al-Qaeda. “More people from Marib will show support for al-Qaeda.”
For Mohammed Taeiman, there was no funeral. “We couldn’t touch him, the car was his graveyard.”