Safa Mugbar
Last updated: 16 September, 2012

“People have been obsessing over the wrong thing – UAVs – rather than the real issue – killing innocents”

The argument over the use of drones has raged on constitutional, operational and budgetary considerations, all from an American perspective. In a classical Orientalist fashion, no one seems to have bothered to ask whether Yemenis like being killed by drones or not.

It’s worth considering the history of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strikes in Yemen. The first example took place in November 2002, when Qa’id Sinan al-Harithi was killed (along with an American citizen called Kamal Darwish) near Ma’rib by the CIA. al-Harithi had been central to the attack on the USS Cole in Aden two years earlier.

Despite the military capability available in a country often cited as being second only to the US in terms of guns per capita, Yemenis took no violent action. Did the tribe to which he belonged blow up the oil pipelines, as they do otherwise at the drop of a hat? No. Did they organise a petition to be presented to the then President Ali Abdullah Saleh? No. Most Yemenis, reckoned that al-Harithi had got what was coming to him, and got on with their daily grind.

When the US were flying UAVs in support of Yemeni ground operations to clear the Islamist Ansar al-Shari’a from the province of Abyan, did Yemenis protest or complain? No – those who had been forced at gun-point from their homes were pleased that the bigots were being done by as they did. Other Yemenis were proud that it was Yemenis – both uniformed and local militias – who were pushing back these foreigners, aided by US air support. No one was terribly worried who was flying the aircraft, or whether the pilots were on-board or in Tennessee.

So what is it that causes these exotic Yemenis to become so incensed? Like many people, they object to the killing of innocent civilians. Whether the explosive is home-made or high tech, and whether the perpetrator is a state or a terrorist, Yemenis still don’t like their women and children being mangled, just like Americans or Europeans, brown or white, Muslim or Christian.

In the US strike on al-Majala on 17th December 2009 55 people are thought to have been killed. Yemeni forces said 14 of these were al-Qaeda members, while the rest were civilians, including 14 women and 21 children. The weapon which killed all these people was probably a USN Tomahawk cruise missile – yet the Yemenis were angered, despite it not being a UAV. Because it doesn’t matter whether the innocent dies from a UAV, a Tomahawk or a fighter jet. People have been obsessing over the wrong thing – UAVs – rather than the real issue – killing innocents.

Even the self-serving Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to point out to General Petraeus that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. Revealingly, the General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site. It was subsequently revealed that the White House definition of a terrorist was rather wide, counting all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants. Amazingly, it was Petraeus himself who had placed heavy emphasis on the Hearts and Minds campaign in Iraq – yet 4 years later, he seemed to have forgotten the lesson.

Then there was the May 2010 killing of Sheikh Jaber al-Shabwani, Deputy Governor of Ma’rib Province and sheikh of the Abida tribe. While this has been referred to as an unfortunate accident, it is highly likely that President Ali Abdullah Saleh set up the US to murder Sheikh Jaber; he had previously tried to trick the Saudis into killing Gen. Ali Muhsen. The Shabwanis retaliated against the state, causing immense damage to the Yemeni economy through their attacks on the oil and electricity distribution networks.

In early September, a US UAV targeting al-Qaeda members near Rada’a in al-Baidha Province killed up to 14 civilians, including three women. The result was predictable: according to CNN, families of the victims closed main roads and vowed to retaliate, with undreds of angry armed gunmen joining them and giving the government a 48-hour deadline to explain the killings.

“You want us to stay quiet while our wives and brothers are being killed for no reason. This attack is the real terrorism,” Mansoor al-Maweri, who was near the scene of the strike, told CNN.

There is also the issue of national pride: Yemenis find it irksome to have their national sovereignty trampled on by the US, many of whose actions in the Middle East they regard as being as murderous as al-Qaeda’s. But as the light-touch operations in Abyan demonstrated, US presence in that action provided intelligence, liaison etc., thus supporting the Yemenis in achieving better security on their own soil. That was both a welcomed and measured success.

The bottom line is: Yemenis don’t like innocent people being killed by a foreign power in their country. Dissembling descriptions as “collateral damage”, or legal double-speak which classifies a nearby civilian as a “combatant” may help President Obama sleep at night, but it does nothing to soothe the grief in the hearts of bereaved Yemenis. Put simply: help Yemenis kill the bad guys; don’t kill people who aren’t bad guys. If in doubt, don’t fire. The alternative is dire. A hundred tribesmen may join the ranks of al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake: this part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.