By Erik West
March 29, 2012
America has dramatically escalated its drone strikes war in Yemen with the tempo of attacks rising to parity with incidents in Pakistan since the installation of a new government this month.
President Barack Obama has authorised all but one of the estimated 44 drone strikes by the US in the troubled Arab state since 2002 and has overseen a rapid increase in attacks since last May with 26 incidents recorded.
The pace appears to be accelerating with nine attacks so far this year and at least five this month, including a strike last week near the terrorist hot bed of Zinjibar. Up to 30 militants were killed in three separate missile strikes on the town, eyewitnesses said.
Nationwide the figures are comparable to those in Pakistan where America has struck on ten occasions, even as it scales back activities in the face of a backlash from an angry public.
Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University has found that as many as 516 people have been killed in the attacks – mostly suspected members of al-Qaeda’s local ally al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Up to 104 were civilians.
With the majority of the attacks carried out by the CIA or US special forces command from a base nearby Dijbouti, American officials refused to confirm or acknowledge the attacks.
President Obama has, however, made plain his determination to go after AQAP, which he has described as “a network of violence and terror” that has attracted a number of US citizens to its cause, including the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Awlaki was killed last September, along with Samir Khan, editor of AQAP’s English-language propaganda magazine Inspire, which had been blamed for recruiting Western-raised youths to Islamic radicalism.
Days later a follow-up attack killed other militants – but also Awlaki’s 16-year old son and 17-year old nephew. AQAP’s ability to speak to an English-language audience was finished.
Elizabeth Quintada, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. said the drone strikes had successfully damaged AQAP, having secured the tacit backing of Yemeni leaders, but still carried the risk of embroiling the US in Yemen’s internal turmoil.
“The strikes in Yemen are government-permitted if not government-sponsored and are a very effective way to hit terrorist camps,” she said. “But because there is a general uprising against the government of Yemen there is a concern about the accuracy of intelligence and groups using America’s firepower for their own purposes.”
The increase in attacks this month appears linked to the installation of a new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In his recent inauguration speech he called for “the continuation of war against al-Qaeda as a religious and national duty”.
Despite multiple reports of US military action in Yemen, the US rarely acknowledges its secret war. A US state department spokesman, speaking on background terms, would this week say only that “I refer you to the Government of Yemen for additional information on its counterterrorism efforts”.
However a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks records a conversations between Gen David Petraeus – now the head of the CIA – and Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh discussing a US attack in December 2009 in which civilians were killed. A Yemen parliamentary commission later found that 14 alleged terrorists died in the attack as well as 44 civilians.
Despite public pressure, US officials have never investigated the deaths. Sheikh Himir Al-Ahmar, deputy speaker of Yemen’s parliament said the local authorities had dealt with the incident.
“The families of the victims were indeed paid appropriate compensation by the Yemeni Government,” he said. “The American authorities did not get involved in this process in any way.’
Campaigners have called on the US to take responsibility for its covert war from the skies. Amnesty International, which carried out its own investigation into the December 2009 attack, said this week that the US failure to investigate credible reports of civilian deaths was troubling.
“With an increase in such operations in places like Yemen, unless one gets to the bottom of who was killed, why, and what precautions were taken to protect civilians, then there is a risk such mistakes will be repeated in the future,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East programme.