News Release

Drones in Yemen: “Lack of Accountability When Strikes Go Wrong and Civilians are Killed”


Reuters reports: “At least four suspected al Qaeda members were killed in a drone strike in central Yemen, local tribal leaders said on Tuesday, following a U.S. warning of a possible major militant attack in the region.”

ROBERT NAIMAN, naiman at
Policy director of Just Foreign Policy, Naiman recently wrote the articles, “In Yemen, Let’s Redeem President Obama’s War on Terror Reform Speech” and “Yemen’s ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ vs. the ‘War on Terror’: A Conversation With Baraa Shiban.”

CHRIS WOODS, freelance.woods at, @chrisjwoods
Woods is an investigative reporter who set up and ran until recently the award-winning Drones Team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism 2013 and is currently writing a book on the U.S. drone wars.

Said Woods: “This morning, residents of Yemen’s capital Sana’a reacted with concern to the reported presence of drones above the city. As one resident, @osamahfakih, tweeted: ‘1st time to feel real feelings of people in targeted areas by #drones. I’m still watching and hearing a #drone hovering in #Sanaa #Yemen.’ Whatever those aircraft were, it is clear that drones now have the capacity to bring fear across Yemen. And as international terrorist threat levels are pushed to their highest in some years, the U.S. appears to be stepping up its counterterrorism drone strikes. This morning saw the fourth reported drone attack in 10 days, killing at least four alleged militants belonging to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, these strikes are not without consequence or risk. An August 1 attack, which at first was reported only to have killed ‘terrorists’, has now been claimed by at least one local journalist to have killed four civilians including a child. An earlier U.S. strike on June 1 also killed a boy, 12-year old Sultan Aziz, the brother of one of the alleged militants who died in a bombed vehicle.

“Despite repeated U.S. claims that civilians rarely die in covert drone attacks, reports from the field continue to challenge this view. Even where U.S. officials know they have killed non-combatants — as in an attack on the city of Rada’a in September 2012 that killed 13 men, women and children — it can take months for U.S. officials to grudgingly come forward and anonymously claim responsibility. No U.S. apologies are made, and no compensation is offered. Al Qaeda remains a threat not only to western interests but also to the future of this small Gulf state. Most Yemenis are vehemently opposed to AQAP, and want nothing more than a peaceful and democratic future for the nation. Yet as the Atlantic Council again recently warned, the United States risks undermining the long-term stability of Yemen in pursuit of short-term goals: ‘While the tactical costs and benefits of any given [drone] strike are weighed by the Administration, the same degree of attention should be paid to the corrosive political effects of drone strikes. Particular attention must be focused on the effect of strikes on the central government’s legitimacy and its ability to cooperate with the United States.’”

ALICE ROSS, aliceross at, @aliceross_
Ross is leader of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drones Team. She said: “After a six-week pause in drone strikes between early June and the end of July, there have been four reported drone strikes in the past 10 days, killing between 14 and 22 people in total. This marks the most intense period of bombing since January, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s data. All attacks took place at dawn and targeted vehicles. Three of the four strikes reportedly targeted senior members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the splinter group that is at the center of the current security alert. But it’s not clear that the recent attacks all target a particular cell or plot — or are even connected to the current alert — as they are scattered all over the country.

“Unfortunately in Yemen it’s often unclear who carried out particular air strikes — CIA drones, U.S. military drones or aircraft, the Yemen air force’s own rather elderly planes and even Saudi jets all reportedly carry out bombing. It’s rare for the U.S. to acknowledge it carried out specific strikes. Local officials and eyewitnesses have claimed that all the local strikes were carried out by U.S. drones — and the fact that they were all precision strikes targeting moving vehicles tends to support this claim. But the lack of official acknowledgement from the U.S. means there is a serious lack of accountability when strikes go wrong and civilians are killed — as may have happened on August 1, when some local sources suggest four civilians were killed, including a child.”