If an apparent U.S. drone strike this month in the village of Mahashama had killed only its intended targets – an al Qaida chief and some of his men – locals might’ve grumbled about a violation of Yemen’s national sovereignty and gone on with their lives.
But the strike also killed a 10-year-old named Abdulaziz, the younger brother of the targeted militant, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, according to local tribal leaders and Yemenis with close ties to the al Qaida branch here. And that set off a firestorm of complaints that underscores how American airstrikes can so outrage a community that even though al Qaida loses some foot soldiers, it gains dozens of sympathizers.
“Killing al Qaida is one thing, but the death of an innocent person is a crime that we cannot accept,” said a sheikh from the area, who like other tribal leaders McClatchy interviewed spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “What did Abdulaziz do? Was this child a member of al Qaida?”
The death of a child not only inflames tensions over drone attacks against suspected al Qaida operatives in the province but also raises questions about the rules that govern the Obama administration’s drone strategy.
The strike June 9 in al Jawf province came less than a month after President Barack Obama gave a rare speech on the U.S. targeted-killing program in which he pledged to increase transparency, acknowledged cases of civilian casualties and stressed that strikes were permitted only if there’s “near certainty” that no noncombatants would be killed or wounded.
Some analysts argue that this and other strikes run counter to the administration’s claims of improved targeting. Huraydan might have been a local al Qaida leader, they say, but it’s unclear whether he constituted a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” Obama’s definition of a legitimate target.
“The number of U.S. drone strikes over the past two years suggests that the U.S. is going after many more targets than just the 10 to 15 individuals it says represent imminent threats to U.S. national security. It appears to be going after whomever it can hit whenever it can find them,” said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge,” a recent book on al Qaida in Yemen.
“The new rules that Obama alluded to in his speech last month either aren’t yet in effect in Yemen or are making no difference,” he added.
Yemeni and U.S. officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Huraydan was wanted by the Yemeni government, and his ties to al Qaida are largely unquestioned. Abdulrazzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist and researcher who monitors the group, cast Huraydan as al Qaida’s “greatest mind” in the province, while Yemeni government officials have alleged that Huraydan played a key role in facilitating transfers of money and fighters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Many of those transactions are thought to occur in isolated areas of al Jawf, like the one where the apparent drone strike occurred.
Residents said a U.S. drone fired up to five missiles at an SUV that was carrying suspected militants in Mahashama, a population hub in an otherwise empty, arid district that one Yemeni official dubbed a “no-man’s land.” At least six people were reported killed in the attack, residents said, noting that identification was difficult because the bodies were burned beyond recognition and were buried quickly in accordance with Muslim custom.
But the accounts of local tribal leaders and others with direct knowledge of the case converged in reporting that Huraydan and his little brother were killed along with four militants, including two Saudis. It was impossible to independently verify details of those killed.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who succeeded longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 in a power transfer agreement that followed nearly a year of nonstop protests, has offered public support for the airstrikes. Hadi, like U.S. officials, casts them as a key tool in the battle against al Qaida.
But many Yemenis staunchly oppose the strikes, saying they violate the country’s sovereignty. They express anger at innocents who die as a result.
“You’re dealing with poor, simple, uneducated people,” said another prominent tribal sheikh from al Jawf province. “It’s not hard to imagine the fear when bombs start falling from the sky – and the anger that a government that provides them with nothing permits it.”
CORRECTION: This version corrects the date of the strike to June 9.