When Did the “Signature Strikes” Start in Yemen?

Last week, I argued that the focus on the drone vetting process–the “Kill List”–is a shiny object, distracting us from signature strikes targeted at patterns, not people, in Yemen. Today, I’m going to push that further and suggest the focus on drones is also a shiny object distracting from the degree to which we’ve gone to war against Yemeni insurgents, using a variety of tactics including but not limited to drones.

I’ve long accepted, based on the public reporting, that Obama approved signature strikes in Yemen–and John Brennan took over the targeting process–just a day or two after the Saudis delivered up UndieBomb 2.0 around April 20. That’s based largely on the fact that when Greg Miller first reported on the issue on April 18, he spoke prospectively. When the WSJ reported that Obama had approved signature strikes, it said the decision had been made “this month” (meaning some time in April), and it pointed to an April 22 drone strike that seemed likely to be a signature strike.

The frequency of U.S. strikes in Yemen is expected to increase with the changes. On Sunday, a CIA-piloted drone hit a vehicle believed to be carrying AQAP militants. Intelligence analysts are working to identify those killed.


The White House’s decision this month stopped short of giving CIA and JSOC the Pakistan-style blanket powers that had been sought—opting instead for what one defense official termed “signature lite.”

Interestingly, that WSJ report pointed to “several direct threats to the US” that surely included the UndieBomb sting that had already reportedly been delivered up to the Administration.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said they are currently tracking several direct threats to the U.S. connected to AQAP. The officials wouldn’t provide further details because that information is classified.

So one way or another, Administration sources seemed to time this to the UndieBomb plot.

But I want to consider the likelihood that Obama embraced “signature strikes”–or rather, expanded drone targeting–earlier than that (though remember that the Administration reportedly knew the UndieBomb plot was coming up to a month before April 20, when it was reportedly delivered up).

Based on TBIJ’s reports of drone strikes in Yemen, it’s fairly clear what have been treated as drone strikes started getting out of control in March, after Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi took over as President in February, not just in April. There are the strikes in three days in early March, which TBIJ estimates killed upwards of 50 people.

The latest strike involved at least five U.S. drones and took place in the Jabal Khanfar region of Jaar, located in southern Abyan province, two senior Yemeni security officials said. At least six suspected al Qaeda militants were killed, Yemeni officials said.

A member of the military committee — Yemen’s highest security authority — confirmed that strike, and said the Yemeni government was given no advance warning of it.

“The United States did not inform us on the attacks. We only knew about this after the U.S. attacked,” the committee member told CNN.

The strike was the third such attack on suspected al Qaeda targets in less than three days, according to Yemeni officials.

The United States was also involved in two other major attacks on Friday and Saturday, which killed at least 58 suspected al Qaeda insurgents, two senior Yemeni defense ministry officials said.

The Friday airstrikes occurred in the Yemen province of al-Baitha in areas used as launching pads for militant attacks. The second attack took place in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar in Abyan province.

One of the strikes–in Bayda–reportedly killed a significant number of civilians.

It’s not just the civilian casualties, the high numbers of dead, or the reported Yemeni ignorance of the strikes that suggest these might be signature strikes (or something even broader) rather than personality strikes. They also accompany other military action–including reported naval bombardment–that suggests they’re part of the coordinated assault on insurgents. While there have certainly been a number of lower level AQAP members named as those killed in the strikes, the focus seems to be on militarily significant targets, not individuals.

Also note, on some of these strikes, there has been confusion whether a drone or manned planes carried out the attack (partly based on the mistaken assumption–now largely put to rest–that only Yemen, rather than the US, would be using manned aircraft in Yemen).

Finally, note that all of these strikes came in the wake of AQAP claims to have killed a CIA officer earlier in March, though the US denied it. Provide AQAP targets to hit, they’ll hit those targets, and you’ve got a reason to retaliate 100 times.

With all that in mind, re-read this April 2 LAT article. While it focuses on drone strikes that net 4-8 casualties rather than the ones that resulted in over 20, it does make it clear we were already at war against insurgents, not just AQAP.

As the pace quickens and the targets expand, however, the distinction may be blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.

U.S. officials insist that they will not be drawn into a civil war and that they do not intend to put ground troops in Yemen other than trainers and small special operations units.


Most militants fighting under the Al Qaeda banner in Yemen are local insurgents, U.S. officials say, along with Saudis bolstering the ranks and assuming leadership roles.

The LAT also dances around the two justifications the Administration has been testing out for going to war in Yemen: the targeting of “diplomats” and civilians in Yemen, and the possibility that Ibrahim al-Asiri might strike again.

Some of the militants are known to harbor ambitions of attacking the West: Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who made the underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in an attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, remains at large in Yemen, U.S. officials say.

The militants say they are fighting the governments in Sana and Riyadh as well as the United States. They have mounted lethal attacks on Yemeni government officials and civilians, including a March 5 battle that killed 100 Yemeni soldiers. An Al Qaeda affiliate claimed credit for a March 18 attack in which an American teacher was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding assailants.


The militants were targeted not because they were plotting attacks against the U.S. but because intelligence suggested they were planning attacks on American diplomats or other targets inside Yemen, the U.S officials said.

In other words, while LAT may have significantly under-reported the casualties in this assault on insurgents, they very clearly portray it as such, well before the news stories about signature versus personality drone strikes got rolled out. It appears the Administration was already preparing its rather weak claims that our entry into this counterinsurgency was a response to imminent threats.

And then, over the course of the month of April, the White House developed first the claim that this war against insurgents is really just signature strikes like we’ve seen in Pakistan (where they’re not accompanied by the same number of JSOC “trainers” and ships). As April turned to May, that claim turned into a campaign ad about Obama the steely Decider overseeing each and every kill.

All the decisions about this campaign may well be coming out of the steely Decider’s White House. But it’s pretty clear the rest of this news blitz arose because,

Brennan believed there was an even greater need to … show[] the American public that al-Qaida [sic] targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate [admittedly selectively cropped quote; see the original nonsensical sentence here]

We’ve significantly joined a counterinsurgency in Yemen–basically gone to war with no formal war announcement or declaration. Rather than announcing that, the White House has rolled out a campaign about how careful all these drone strikes are.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. What Constitution says:

    OK, so we’re not “invading” Yemen, nor are we ignoring Yemen’s “sovereignty”, because we’re “invited” by the Yemeni government and the drone strikes we’re engaged in are authorized and approved by the Yemeni government, right? This isn’t “war”, it’s a “counterinsurgency” action by Americans in support of … something … and “against” something else. Yes?

    So when do start referring to our military in Yemen as “henchmen” for the governing Yemeni faction? Or is that a “slippery slope” that might make Afghanistan less comfortable? Yeah, that’s right. Best just to leave it as targeting “males of military age deemed probably up to no good” and move one.

  2. MadDog says:

    I’m with you 100% EW! In fact, I’ve been there for a good long while now. *g*

    Take that squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles (confirmed by the NYT here) based across the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti.

    There is no way that a squadron of 8 F-15E Strike Eagles with all its command and control personnel, its logistical support personnel and equipment, and flight operations personnel and equipment could be deployed to Djibouti without weeks, if not months, of leadtime.

    And I would note that it is likely that these F-15E Strike Eagles, which are the premier US night ground attack strike aircraft, are not likely flying ground attack strikes in Yemen during the daytime since doing so would visibly reveal their country of origin.

    Again, all of a piece of the Obama Administration’s conduct of a covert war in Yemen without public notice or a required Congressional Declaration of War.

    Yes EW, we are meant to be distracted by the shiny object of Obama’s and Blabbermouth Brennan’s Kill List. And yes, so too with signature strikes in Yemen as well.

  3. Z says:

    Signature strikes in Yemen = strikes against gatherings of resistance to the U.S. approved/compliant Yemeni government.


  4. emptywheel says:

    @What Constitution: IF we’re henchmen, we’re the Saudis henchmen.

    And while I think your description is right, note that Yemen at least claims they didn’t know about those early March strikes.

    Maybe the “signature strike” claims were in fact negotiated with Yemen after that fact, to give Yemen the opportunity to claim they can reel all this in. But we may have been welcome to make those strikes without according Yemen full oversight.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Yes…and no.

    If all you want to do is use signature strikes to kill “military age males”, it is probably good enough for the targeteers, though the clothing worn by many of both genders in the Middle East and Near East might make that very problematic.

    But as for “personality strikes”, I don’t think there is anyway in hell that drone infrared optics are good enough to identify anything other than warm bodies.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Maybe they’re assuming that like Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to drive, and therefore any moving vehicle must be driven by “military aged males”.

    It wouldn’t surprise at all if that was mindset of our targeteers. The shortest distance between 2 points is ignorance. Willful or otherwise.

  7. joanneleon says:

    I think this is a very likely explanation. At a time when they are trying to emphasize that Obama is trying to end the war in Afghanistan, the last thing he wants people to know is that he has gotten us into another war. The approval numbers on Afghanistan are in the tank.

    I also think that they are very worried about the details about al-Majala becoming more widely known. The broad press coverage about the massacre in Afghanistan and the blue-on-green attacks have been disastrous for the people who want to prop up support for the war. Widespread news of another massacre involving so many women and children, and one in which there was a huge coverup at first, will make matters even worse for the perpetual warmongers.

  8. joanneleon says:

    @joanneleon: And I forgot the big thing re: al-Majala. There are pictures. Pictures which are hard to control, that can’t be classified and hidden by the Sec. of Defense. So if the Yemen story gets big then the Majala story could get big, and the media will have pictures to work with.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Whether Mr. Obama has ended his expanded war in Afghanistan is debatable, given the continuing presence of troops and an unknown number of mercenaries and official and unofficial spy and psy-ops, not to mention continuing US overflights of satellites, drones and manned aircraft. But this is an election year, and he’s the leader of an empire. He cannot remain popular with the corporatocracy and the right if he is seen to be “toning down” his wars against, well, whomever he defines at the moment as the enemy.

    Yemen may be one site where he can continue his wars, while testing and promoting the new normalcy of increasingly higher tech remote killing, sniping with computers, cameras and missiles instead of a scope mounted on a .30 rifle. Among other goals, that keeps the money flowing to the right people and keeps the US doing favors for absolute an monarchy sitting on pool of oil . It doesn’t seem, however, to be doing much for honoring the Arab Spring or the principles on which this country was founded.

  10. GKJames says:

    As a taxpayer who’s compelled to fund this endeavor, I ask, to what end? While I can appreciate, to some extent, the granular distinctions as to the flavors of murder in this discussion, over time it all numbs the mind.

    This has everything to do with careers and power in Washington and little with solving some tangible geopolitical problem. A collection of suits in Washington kills people in far-away countries. By what legal authority? On what set of facts? Basic questions that go unanswered, though in the way characteristic of Washington, the public is teased with a pretend transparency that’s matched in absurdity only by the pretend regret at civilian casualties. Pretend diggers for facts regurgitate the nonsense of pretend public officials. Overlaying everything, of course, is the self-proclaimed nobility and courage that come with the struggle to save western civilization. Pure marketing genius.

    And what of the Yemenis? They seem to have little trouble with any of this else they’d be howling about violated sovereignty. This suggests that they, along with the Saudis, have suckered the US into yet another tribal war. That said, given that there’s no serious, tangible blow-back, there’s zero incentive for Washington to change what it’s doing. The more bad guys we create, the more killing we can justify. The more killing we do, the more effectively we can rationalize the delusion that we’re under siege. And it’s on the back of that delusion that a variety of constituencies in the US pursue careers and lucre.

    To the extent that I disagree with anything said here, it’s that, as with Afghanistan and Iraq, the reference to “war” is misplaced given that the term suggests that there are at least two sides with credible means to inflict harm on each other. What we’re really witnessing is hits, the 21st century, high-tech equivalent of punks getting offed while supping on pasta e fagioli. The difference, of course, is that in this version, the punks doing the offing are immune from retaliation.

  11. orionATL says:

    you know how the saying goes:

    “war is tar!”

    our smart, clippity-lippity brer rabbitt of a prez done got hisself stuk – but good.


    Joel Chandler Harris


    “Didn’t the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?” asked the little boy
    the next evening.

    “He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho’s you born–Brer Fox did. One day atter
    Brer Rabbit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ‘im
    some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he
    call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road,
    en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En
    he didn’t hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin’
    down de road–lippity-clippity, clippity -lippity–dez ez sassy ez a
    jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin’ ‘long twel he spy
    de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz ‘stonished.
    De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

    “`Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – `nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.

    “Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.

    “`How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

    “Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain’t
    sayin’ nuthin’.

    “‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you
    is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.

    “Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

    “‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en I;m
    gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.

    “Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t
    sayin’ nothin’.

    “‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
    ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
    howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.

    “Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

    “Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’,
    twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck
    ‘er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis’
    stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De tar hilt ‘im. But Tar-Baby, she stay
    still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

    “`Ef you don’t lemme loose, I’ll knock you agin,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en
    wid dat he fotch ‘er a wipe wid de udder han’, en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she
    ain’y sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

    “`Tu’n me loose, fo’ I kick de natal stuffin’ outen you,’ sez Brer Rabbit,
    sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on, en de
    Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low.
    Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don’t tu’n ‘im loose he butt
    ‘er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he
    sa’ntered fort’, lookin’ dez ez innercent ez wunner yo’ mammy’s

    “`Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. `You look sorter stuck up dis
    mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he
    couldn’t laff no mo’. `I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer
    Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain’t gwineter take no
    skuse,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee.”

    Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.

    “Did the fox eat the rabbit?” asked the little boy to whom the story had
    been told.

    “Dat’s all de fur de tale goes,” replied the old man. “He mout, an den agin
    he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ‘long en loosed ‘im – some say he
    didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ‘long.”

  12. Kathleen says:

    listening to Marcy over at Antiwar.com
    Blogger Marcy Wheeler discusses the NY Times puff piece article on President Obama’s secret kill list; the government’s fuzzy math in calculating civilian casualties from drone strikes; assassinating the bakers who may or may not sell bread to the Taliban; journalists (a.k.a. “terrorist sympathizers”) who dare gather information on drone strike casualties; more evidence that counterterrorism advisor John Brennan is a liar; how the US helped create the AQAP threat in Yemen; why the Abdulmutallab “Underwear Bomber” story still doesn’t make sense; the US’s bad intelligence and untrustworthy partners in the Middle East; and how secretive drone strikes and Special Forces raids allow the president to wage war on the sly.

  13. Chris Woods says:

    Maybe a year earlier? May 5 2011 saw an attempt to kill Awlaki by drone – their first use in Yemen for nine years.

    I’ve always assumed this was JSOC’s own fleet, because of what happened next. If it was the CIA’s Reapers, the whole recent ‘permission for signature strikes’ issue would be pure sham.

    The Awlaki attempt was immediately followed by multiple strikes, similar in tempo to today. The deputy governor of Abyan claimed, for example, that 130 people had been killed over two weeks by US drones prior to June 15. Yemeni government officials were reporting a US strike a day.

    They were less ‘signature strikes’, more like the ‘targets of opportunity’ being whacked in North Africa at the same time. The US involvement then and now is far more like Libya than Pakistan, with drones backing troops on the ground; conventional airstrikes, and naval bombardments.

    Throughout the period, though, named AQAP targets were still being sought in more classic CIA-style strikes. It’s felt like more than one campaign for the past year or so, and that may not just be interagency rivalry.

    Data at http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/03/29/yemen-reported-us-covert-actions-since-2001/

  14. klynn says:

    “We’ve significantly joined a counterinsurgency in Yemen–basically gone to war with no formal war announcement or declaration. Rather than announcing that, the White House has rolled out a campaign about how careful all these drone strikes are.”

    Ah, if the tables were turned, me thinks “war” would be the word spoken. Spot on point EW.

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