A year ago today, Hussein Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr, a labourer, was travelling to work in Al-Bayda, central Yemen, with 11 colleagues including family members when a drone struck the car. When the attack was over, Hussein emerged from where he had taken cover to look for the other passengers and found his father, 65, slumped in the road with shrapnel injuries to his head and chest. The bodies of the other passengers were scattered around the area, with some injuries so severe, Hussein was only able to identify them from their clothing. Four of the passengers were killed: Sanad Nasser Hussein Al-Khushm, Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr Al-Khushm, Yasser Ali Abed Rabbo Al-Azzani and Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr.
"Why? Why did they kill my son Sanad and my cousin Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr? My son and my cousin did not belong to any organisation," said Hussein Nasser Abu Bakr Al-Khushm to researchers of a report released by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The attack was part of the US's targeted killing programme, a tactic which was employed in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a core part of "counterterrorism" efforts in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a BBC forum in 2013: "The only people that we fire a drone at [sic] are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level after a great deal of vetting that takes a long period of time. We don't just fire a drone at somebody and think they're a terrorist." However, the report entitled "Death by Drone: Civilian harm caused by US targeted killings in Yemen", found no evidence that the passengers in the car were linked to any terrorist organisation. It seems that they were "collateral damage" in a targeted attack on the car driving in front of them.
Collateral damage in US drone attacks have claimed many innocent lives. For example, in Yemen, strikes targeting 17 named men killed 273 people, at least seven of them children, according to the Guardian. These attacks have explicit support from the Yemeni government and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who took over power following former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year reign ended amid widespread protests during the Arab Spring, praised US drone strikes in Yemen and stated that he personally approved every drone strike taking place in the country.
These attacks have stayed largely out of mainstream news, except in December 2013 when a drone attack hit the wedding procession of Abdullah Mabkhut Al-Amri and Warda Al-Sorimi killing 12 of the guests. The Yemeni government gave the families $101,000 and 101 rifles in compensation. The US did not publically launch an investigation or provide compensation. Although the wedding attack led to Yemen's Parliament passing an almost unanimous but nonbinding resolution to prohibit the US from continuing drone strikes.
A lack of justice is however typical in such cases. Jen Gibson, an attorney at Reprieve who represents drone victims said: "For many innocent people in places like Yemen and Pakistan, drones are judge, jury and executioner all in one." She added: "The true extent of the US drone programme is shrouded in secrecy, and when the families of the victims seek redress for the terrible injustice of losing their loved ones – often women and children – there is zero accountability."
According to Reprieve, the US has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – all countries against whom it has not declared war.
Contrary to the claims by Yemen and the US that the strikes help contain Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAB) activities, clinical and forensic psychiatrist Peter Schaapveld expressed fear in an interview to Channel 4 that the drones were pushing the youth into the hands of militant organisations. After conducting research in Yemen, he warned of a "psychological emergency" in towns impacted by drones, with 99 per cent of Yemenis he spoke to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He described the children he assessed as "hollowed-out shells of children" who are being "traumatised and re-traumatised"
He said: "Another young man, 17 years of age, he said prior to this, prior to the strikes: 'I was very interested in the western culture. Me and my friends followed western fashion, listened to western music and watched western films. Now we have no interest in the west because of what has been done to us.'" Entesar Al Qadhi, a prominent activist from Mareb, an area of Yemen devastated by drone strikes, said to the audience of a drone summit in 2013: "Until the United States interfered, we did not even know what Al Qaeda was."
This concern has been echoed by the likes of General James E. Cartwright (Ret.), former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former adviser to President Obama, who said: "We're seeing that blowback…If you're trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you're going to upset people even if they're not targeted." General Stanley McChrystal (Ret.), who led coalition forces in Afghanistan and was the head of the US Joint Special Operations Command, recognised the drones were creating "a tremendous amount of resentment inside populations."
The Open Society Justice Initiative report, a collaborative piece of research conducted with Yemeni group Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, questions whether drone attacks in Yemen are in line with the US's own policy guidance and with international law. Similar questioning led President Obama to outline in May 2013 the steps his administration takes before launching a targeted killing. According to Obama, the US must have a "near-certainty" that a target is present who poses a "continuing and imminent threat to the American people," that capture is not feasible, and that no civilians will be harmed.
The death of Hussein Nasser Abu Bakr Al-Khushm's son and cousin, the targeting of Mabkhut Al-Amri's and Warda Al-Sorimi's wedding procession and the endless other cases of "collateral damage" seem to indicate that these steps are not closely followed.
Today, Yemeni's have swapped the constant buzz of drones for the sound of airstrikes, as a Saudi-led coalition is bombing Yemen for the 23rd consecutive day in an attempt to tackle Houthi rebels. As the country descends into further chaos and armed groups continue to thrive off of the power vacuum in Yemen, we should not underestimate how the constant buzz in the air in villages across Yemen serves as a catalyst pushing young men towards militancy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.