World

Drone Victim: U.S. Strikes Boost al-Qaida Recruitment

A young Yemeni whose village was targeted by a U.S. drone strike tells Salon about the experience, and its effects.

On April 17, a 23-year-old Yemeni activist and journalist named Farea Al-Muslimi tweetedabout a U.S. drone strike on his village, Wessab, which he describes as “the Yemen capital of misery with its beautiful mountains no one from outside remembers.” In the strike, five alleged members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were killed. The U.S. droned Yemen 53 times last year, tripling the number of attacks from 2011, and incurring a civilian casualty rate between 4 to 8.5 percent. On April 23, Al-Muslimi gave stirring testimony at the first U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the legality of drone wars.

In the exclusive conversation below, Al-Muslimi tells Salon about the drone strikes’ devastating toll on Yemeni civilians and how the current U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen is like “reading from a manual ’10 Steps on How to Lose a War.’”

You testified at the first U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on drone wars describing the consequences of a drone strike on your village. What was the U.S. justification for the strike on Hammed Al-Radmi, a man from your village?

I don’t know (laughs). There is no justification for the U.S. in every case I’ve seen in Yemen where they’ve done a drone strike — either in my village or other villages. They say they need to use these [predator] planes, because otherwise they cannot capture these [targeted] people, but that is misleading and not true. This is why I came here – to ask what’s the justification? I don’t know. You should really direct this question to the U.S. government.

Even right now, the U.S. still hasn’t said why they killed Al-Radmi. And for many people in the area, including government officials, Al-Radmi was a social figure who was helping and solving many of the problems. He might have been accused of having ties with AQAP, but the U.S. didn’t capture him or question him. Basically, the U.S. just killed a very normal person who just three years ago was actually studying economics in Cuba, under the government of Castro, before returning to Yemen. And then the U.S. ordered a drone strike on him and they still don’t really know why. I don’t see the justification for using a strike, because [due to his visibility] it would have been easier to capture him than perhaps any other Yemeni in the capital.

In May of 2011, the U.S. government launched a drone strike meant for Anwar Al-Arshani. However, 24 civilians were also killed that day. Al-Arshani was alleged to be a member of al-Qaida, but many Yemenis say that allegation was uncorroborated. What’s your take?

This is a good, good question. Al-Arshani’s house was the first drone strike I ever visited. I interviewed most of the survivors. I visited them almost a month after the strike, and I still found a few pieces of his house. It is one of the places in Yemen where most civilians were killed ever [as a result of a drone strike]. Whether Al-Arshani was part of al-Qaida or not, the U.S. killed 24 innocent Yemenis. They could have been more efficient and accurate with their strike — at least if this policy was well thought out.

I interviewed a woman whose husband was killed in that strike. The day of the strike, he went to the souk to look for a job. He was a jobless man; he was working day by day. The woman was so happy, she said today her husband will find work and he’ll come home in the afternoon with food for their four kids. Unfortunately, she learned later that he was killed. It was one of the most tragic cases where a U.S. strike killed innocent civilians.

There was no working hospital around that strike for civilian victims. So, neighbors carried the victims to the local post office around the corner; that was the only space available to carry so many civilian victims. It became a makeshift hospital, because the real hospital was bombed. I visited this “hospital” [the post office] and I said, “This is anything but a hospital.” It was full of trash; there was no equipment – I mean it was a post office that became uglier, dirtier. If you went in and weren’t injured, you’d walk out of it with diseases and infections. It was one of the worst places I’ve seen. I’ve never seen a toilet as bad as the one I saw in this “hospital.” It’s a tragic place.

Also, even after a month, the site of the strike was so fresh that I could still see some flesh and blood of civilian victims in the sand. Nothing has been done for these people. Not even an apology almost one year after the strike. Every single person I interviewed said Al-Arshani was not AQAP. Whether he was not, there was a massacre of civilians that hadnothing to do with him.

There’s some disagreement in the U.S. over whether these drone strikes breed anti-American resentment in the average Yemeni. What do you think?

A lot of people after 9/11, all around the world, hated al-Qaida, because they did a terrorist attack and killed innocent people. Nobody expected that. In my village, and other areas of Yemen, people were living peacefully and not even in a state of war. And now the U.S. comes and bombs them and most of the time the U.S. doesn’t even kill its intended targets. Why wouldn’t people be angry at that? It’s equally the same as what people experienced in Boston. But the U.S. helps al-Qaida [by engaging in drone strikes] in recruitment. The U.S. relieves itself of capturing, questioning, and convicting these suspects. In the meantime, the U.S. has terrified thousands of Yemeni people. Most of these people are farmers, and the U.S. is bombing them. The farmer is not expecting that. When he goes out, he is expecting more rain, and more wheat, and more food for his children.

You mentioned Yemeni people are now terrified. What are the persistent psychological effects of such strikes? 

There’s a man from the middle of Yemen who said that the mothers used to scare the children by saying, “You better go to bed now, or else I’ll call your father!” Now, they say, “We’re going to call the planes!” The U.S. has changed the whole local perception and you have changed the culture. It’s like the children in America are waiting for Santa to come from the sky and give them presents. Now, in Yemen, the children are waiting for a different type of American Santa – he comes from the sky to drop bombs. That’s the type of gifts Yemeni kids get. In Iraq, it’s different; those people can see the U.S. soldiers. If they don’t like you, they can at least have a conversation with that soldier. You can speak with them. Here, you’re just bombing and running away, and bombing and running away.

I’ve heard from other Yemenis that the predator drones, basically a mechanical bird dropping bombs, is seen as both cowardly and humiliating. Does the impersonal nature of attack intensify the anger?

Definitely. Definitely. No one can even see the U.S. as human. There’s no tank or soldier. There’s a man in my village who refers to the drones as “planes without drivers (meaning pilots) that come and bomb us.” It’s so inhuman. You’re flying this plane like a game from somewhere in Las Vegas and you don’t touch the blood on your hand. But the ones who touch the blood on their hands are the victims.

I remember when an American friend came to Yemen and I took her to Abyan, and I was really, really afraid for her due to al-Qaida. So, I hid her by dressing her like a total Yemeni. We covered her in a niqab, we even covered her hands, and she made a hole for her fingers so she could use her iPhone. She looked like a total Salafi, because I was afraid AQAP would recognize her as an American and might do something bad to her. But, in Abyan, we heard a drone above our heads. I thought, “My goodness.” I told her, “I am not more afraid about your life from al-Qaida, I’m more afraid for your life from your own government. This is something I can’t do anything about. Due to this policy of signature strike drones, you and I are now legitimate targets in Yemen by your own taxes.” I feel afraid for everyone, not just Yemenis, who happen to be in Yemen.

I have an American “family,” because I lived with them here in the U.S. during high school and I consider them my second family. I was with them this past weekend, and — believe it or not — in the last eight months I’ve only seen my Yemeni family twice. It’s because I’m concerned about my safety on the road to go see my mom. It can’t get worse than that. It’s like being in America and realizing you can no longer go to church or Disneyland because of the threat of being bombed.

Suppose the U.S. does cease drone operations. Then suppose they learn of a high value target that they want eliminated, like Anwar al-Awlaki or Saeed al-Shihri. What should the U.S. do? Or are you suggesting that the U.S. stop all operations, period, not just drones?

I’m not a government to say what they should do or not do. However, I know what they are doing right is now like reading from a manual “10 Steps on How to Lose a War.” That’s what they’re doing now. My answer to this is they first need to stop all these targeted killings, because their claims that their targets cannot be captured is a lie. Totally. As simple as that. They’re lying to themselves, they’re lying to the people, they’re lying to the world, and they’re lying to all the media.

If you go to any guy in the villages and say, “Hey, we think this is a bad guy, we want to speak to him, bring him over.” I swear to God it won’t take more than a day. These Yemeni farmers will capture him and bring him to you. The U.S. doesn’t even try to capture these targets; they instead spend hundreds of millions of dollars to drop bombs. The U.S. has trained a whole unit of counterterrorism in Yemen. The U.S. recruited it, supported it and funded it. Not a single bullet has been used to shoot at areas with al-Qaida. Instead, they are shooting at people who are working for democracy and the civic state. Usually, when someone is sick, they give you medicine, they give you pills; the very, very, very, very last thing they give you is surgery, because nothing worked out. Now, in Yemen, even if you’re not sick, they’re cutting you.

We know both governments of former President Saleh and current Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have admitted to authorizing every drone strike. Isn’t it unfair to entirely blame the U.S. and make it the boogeyman?

I mean, sure, but look, you’re assuming that both Saleh and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his armed government in the capital were voted and brought to power by the Yemenis. No. They were brought to power by the world including the U.S. It’s not a Yemeni government, it’s the world government in Yemen; it’s the U.S. government in Yemen. OK, they take responsibility for allowing the drone strikes, but at the end of the day this man, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is mainly American. His public support of the drones has made him look like the Puppet Musharraf of Yemen.

You came to the U.S. as an ambassador from Yemen, and you return to Yemen as an ambassador from the U.S. How do you answer Yemenis who ask you why the U.S. is launching drone strikes against them?

I don’t have an answer. I can’t say anything to them. That’s why I’m here in America. If I had answers, I wouldn’t come here looking for them. It’s like a diplomat who is sent by his country but fails to explain to his people. I have failed at that. I just ask, “Why are you doing this?” I still don’t have an answer.

How do the drone strikes exacerbate existing political tensions in Yemen?

Good question. At present, it causes lots of tension. Politically, it has been used by local politicians to give false information to set up rivals. In my village, the local government is accused of setting up a man who was recently droned. That’s the problem with counterterrorism in Yemen. When you make it into a cash cow, it can never be over. If you’re [former President] Saleh, why would you really end terrorism and al-Qaida if it could be a cash cow that keeps getting you money from the U.S.? You wouldn’t, unless you’re really, really stupid. And he wasn’t. It’s a cash cow unlike any other.

You’ve emerged into the limelight. How do you feel about being a spokesman for this issue?

I wish I never did this. I am ready to get this done so I can go back to Yemen and work on activism like I had been doing since 2007, on issues of democracy, youth development, human rights, women’s issues. I’m tired of this. It’s not like something you feel, “Ah, I feel great doing this.” I hate doing this. I just want to go back to work.