NPR’s Kelly McEvers just released a story with some on-the-ground reporting on attacks in Yemen attributed to the US. She focuses closely on an attack on Jaar I’ve discussed before in the context of reports on Obama’s embrace of signature strikes in Yemen.
I noted, for example, that this strike happened as anonymous Administration sources seeded a bunch of stories about a Kill List, falsely suggesting that the Administration only killed people whose identities they knew.
There is absolutely no reason to believe, for example, that Obama–or even John Brennan–knew the identity of the up to 8 civilians who were killed by a drone in Jaar, Yemen, on May 15. All anyone knew about them, according to reporting, is that they ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site. Boom! They were never on any Kill List, but they are nonetheless just as dead as Quso is.
And they rolled out that campaign amid disputes about who was responsible for the attack–and whether it was carried out with drones or manned aircraft.
I find the competing stories being told interesting, particularly in light of questions about who leaked information on the latest Underwear Bomb “plot.” At first, a “government official” toldChina’s Xinhua news that the Yemeni military had executed the attacks.
Earlier in the day, a botched air strike carried out by Yemeni warplanes hit a residential building near a compound used by al- Qaida militants in the insurgents-controlled town of Jaar, killing at least eight civilians and injuring five others, a government official said.[my emphasis]
But later, “three Yemeni security officials” blamed the strikes on drones, not the Yemeni military.
Two suspected U.S. drone strikes killed seven al Qaeda militants and eight civilians in the southern part of Yemen on Tuesday, three Yemeni security officials said.
It was the latest of several U.S. strikes in Yemen, which is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described by U.S. officials as the al Qaeda affiliate that poses the most serious threat to the United States.
At least seven civilians were injured in the Tuesday strikes, the officials said.
In other words, this attack seems like a royal fuckup that elicited some real spin on the part of the Administration to explain away.
Which is interesting, given that McEvers’ report–or at least the description of the sound of a plane, as distinct from a drone–seems to support the manned aircraft claims.
In Jaar, a town in southern Yemen, an entire block has been reduced to rubble by what residents say was a powerful airstrike on May 15.
At this particular site, witnesses say the strikes rocked the town in the morning, just as many residents of Jaar were out buying breakfast. Residents say they heard a plane, and a house on the main street was flattened. One man inside died instantly. Continue reading
In response to my speculation that the Administration might be treating UndieBomb 2.0 as one part of a larger secret including our war against Yemeni insurgents led out of the NSC, a reader
Mark Hosenball alerted us to Mark Hosenball’s reporting that drone strikes are not included among the leak investigations.
Recent revelations about clandestine U.S. drone campaigns against al Qaeda and other militants are not part of two major leak investigations being conducted by federal prosecutors, sources familiar with the inquiries said.
Most detailed information on the drone wars, which were initiated by the George W. Bush administration but expanded by President Barack Obama, is highly classified, officials said.
But Obama and top administration officials, including White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, recently have been alluding more openly to drone operations in public remarks, and detailed news coverage has been widespread.
The CIA has not filed a “crime report” with the Justice Department over reports about Obama’s drone policy and a U.S. “kill list” of targeted militants, an action which often would trigger an official leak investigation, two sources familiar with the matter said. They requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
By contrast, the CIA did file a “crime report” following publication by the Associated Press last month of a report disclosing the foiling of a plot by Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack an airliner using a newly designed underwear bomb, sources said.
It’s worth remembering, btw, that Hosenball was the person who reported that John Brennan revealed information that led Richard Clarke to learn that UndieBomb 2.0 was actually carried out by a Saudi asset. Just saying.
Meanwhile, the AP reports that the White House is going to acknowledge our undeclared wars in Yemen and Somalia in a report to Congress today.
For the first time, the White House’s semiannual report to Congress on the state of U.S. combat operations abroad mentions what has been widely known for years but never formally acknowledged: The U.S. has taken “direct action” against al-Qaida members in Yemen and Somalia.
All this comes in advance of a June 20 deadline (I will be on a beach in England with the in-laws) in one of the ACLU’s FOIAs on drones (the one on the Awlaki OLC memo) in which the CIA will have to decide whether it can confirm that it has a drone program.
Call me cynical, but I’m still waiting for the Administration to say all this non-specific disclosure means it can tell the ACLU to take a hike.
Ultimately, though, we have yet to see whether the kill list stories–which the AP reported to be out of date before they came out–will be presented in FOIA response as the current state of affairs in our drone war in Yemen.
Update: Here’s the language on Yemen.
The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.
The United States is committed to thwarting the efforts of al-Qa’ida and its associated forces to carry out future acts of international terrorism, and we have continued to work with our CT partners to disrupt and degrade the capabilities of al-Qa’ida and its associated forces. As necessary, in response to the terrorist threat, I will direct additional measures against al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces to protect U.S. citizens and interests. It is not possible to know at this time the precise scope or the duration of the deployments of U.S. Armed Forces necessary to counter this terrorist threat to the United States. A classified annex to this report provides further information.
Very interesting, particularly the nod to the classified annex, which presumably is more forthcoming about all the insurgents we’ve now promoted into “operatives and senior leaders” than we get here. And what’s that construction about, anyway? “Operatives and senior leaders”??? To say the least, the order is odd.
Update: the comment from Hosenball was not from him himself–I’ve changed the post accordingly.
As I noted earlier, Obama just signed an Executive Order ostensibly targeting the US assets of those who undermine Yemen’s stability, potentially including US citizens who do so. I’ve been comparing this EO to one of the analogous ones pointed out in Karen DeYoung’s article on the EO: one issued against Somalia in 2010 (h/t to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for the link).
The EOs are very similar, including the language potentially targeting US citizens. But there are some interesting differences.
As DeYoung pointed out, the Yemeni EO, unlike the Somlia one, does not include an annex with named targets, even though the EO itself speaks of “certain members of the Government of Yemen.” As such, this EO seems to be a threat with consequences, not an immediate sanction.
The Yemen EO also uses slightly different language in the clause targeting those who materially support those destabilizing the country. Whereas the Somalia EO includes those who provide “logistical” or “technical” support, the Yemen EO includes those who provide “technological” support. So make sure you don’t serve as webmaster for someone Hillary Clinton thinks is destabilizing Yemen.
The most interesting difference, IMO, is this clause, which appears in the Yemen EO but does not in the Somalia one.
Sec. 5. Nothing in section 1 of this order shall prohibit transactions for the conduct of the official business of the United States Government by employees, grantees, or contractors thereof.
In other words, while Obama doesn’t want you, or Ali Abdullah Saleh’s leave-behinds, or the AP to destabilize Yemen, he reserves the right for US government employees, grantees, or contractors to do so. Which presumably means, as happened in Afghanistan, we are and plan to continue paying some of the people who are in violation of this EO.
I wonder. Among all the adjectives we might use to describe the Saudis, do we use “grantee” among them?
I’m going to disappoint Jim by not dedicating a full post to Judy Miller’s graceless rant about the AP’s Pulitzer win, in which she whines that the AP hasn’t taken Ray Kelly’s insistence that his NYPD’s spying is legal seriously enough. I already had to fisk Miller’s credulous regurgitation of Ray Kelly’s defense of the NYPD here and then remind her that journalists should be in the business of sorting out false claims from true ones here. Given her past failures to write credibly on the AP’s NYPD series, I trust no one will make the mistake of doing anything but dismissing everything she has to say about the AP series.
But since I’ve already started a post about mouthpieces for those in power, maybe I should take a look at what Miller’s close kin, Barbara Starr, had to say about expanded drone strikes in Yemen.
The lead in Greg Miller’s story on this emphasized how little intelligence we would have on the expanded drone strikes.
The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.
Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.
Compare that with the headline and lead in Barbara Starr’s version.
Intel influx leads to increased U.S. strikes in Yemen
The increased pace of counterterrorism strikes in Yemen by U.S. drones and aircraft is a result of what U.S. military and intelligence officials describe as improved intelligence about the leadership of the al Qaeda movement in that country.
This is, IMO, the most telling line in this entire article on the CIA’s request to use the signature strikes in Yemen that proved so problematic in Pakistan:
The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.
After all, in Pakistan, where only the CIA flies drones, David Petraeus has sharply limited the use of signature strikes. But in Yemen, where both JSOC and CIA fly drones (and operate on the ground), JSOC sees no need but Petraeus does.
Consider what that means in conjunction with this:
The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.
The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.
That is, these signature strikes would be operating from a base in Saudi Arabia (or is it in Oman), with informants developed, in significant part, by the Saudis (ya think)? And this authority, if granted, would permit the killing of people whose identities the CIA did not know.
The Saudis have, in the past, asked for Predator drones specifically so they could use them to attack the Houthi rebels in Yemen. They have blamed the Houthis and other unrest in Yemen on Iran, their rival for hegemony in the Middle East. At least according to what the Yemenis claimed to their Parliament, Saudi intelligence was involved in the disastrous strike on al-Majalah.
Now maybe this crazed plan wasn’t dreamed up by the Saudis.
But it sure sounds like a backdoor way for the Saudis to access control over drones and their targets in Yemen, without the CIA double-checking their work.
Mind you, the article suggests that even former CIA Saudi station chief John Brennan is likely to oppose this idea.
The CIA might be able to replicate that success in Yemen, the former intelligence official said. But he expressed skepticism that White House officials, including counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, would approve the CIA’s Yemen request.
So maybe I’m completely wrong that this is a way to give the Saudis more control.
Still. There are a lot of other reasons this is a terrible idea, many of them readily apparent just from the many contradictions in this piece. But the degree to which it outsources more control of our already counterproductive drone program to the Saudis is certainly one big reason, IMO, why it’s a terrible idea.
Update: Since I’m talking about Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen, I ought to point out this news.
On March 28, a Saudi diplomat named Abdullah al Khalidi was kidnapped by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the port city of Aden, Yemen. AQAP’s gunmen captured al Khalidi, who served as Saudi Arabia’s deputy consul in Aden, as he was getting into his car outside of his residence.
Sometime thereafter the Saudi embassy in Sanaa received a call from an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Mishaal Mohammed Rasheed al Shadoukhi. According to Saudi government sources cited by Asharq Al Awsat, al Shadoukhi assured the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Ali Al Hamdan, that al Khalidi was “fine and in good health.”
Al Shadoukhi issued several demands, including the “release of all female prisoners” who are in Saudi custody and connected to al Qaeda, the release of various other detainees held by Saudi authorities, and a ransom payment that is to be negotiated.
Al Shadoukhi also told the ambassador that the Saudis could send an emissary to Jaar, a southern Yemeni town controlled by al Qaeda and its allies, if they want to discuss al Khalidi’s “case” with his kidnappers further.
Marcy already covered the very important Greg Miller Washington Post article on drones and the way the Obama administration is growing ever more reliant on their use. I would like to focus on more of the collateral damage from drone use as described in two Los Angeles Times articles from this week. Today’s article discusses the growing reliance on civilian contractors in the use of drones. Earlier in the week, we learned about the “death squads” roaming the tribal areas of Pakistan doling out revenge on those thought to have sold information used by the US in developing target information. Taken together, these articles demonstrate how the excessive reliance on drones is outstripping the military and CIA support infrastructure. This matter will be only be made worse by the fact that the number of US personnel on the ground within Pakistan to develop intelligence has been cut to one fourth the previous level.
Today’s LA Times article opens with a description of the difficulties that ensue when civilians take part in analysis of video feeds from drones that hit civilian targets:
After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.
The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills of central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.
We learn in the article that maintaining drones in the air requires a very large contingent of ground support, with Predators requiring over 150 ground crew for a 24 hour flight and twice that amount for the larger drones. We are already short on these ground crews and yet the number of these medium and large drones is expected to go from the current 230 to 960 within ten years. But don’t worry, only 44 hours of training are required to certify a pilot!
In relying so heavily on civilian contractors, the US is flirting with breaking the international laws of war. Also from today’s article: Continue reading
As I wrote yesterday, the family of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, has spoken out against the US killing of these two American citizens, one just 16 years old, in separate drone strikes in southern Yemen. The birth certificate of Abdulrahman has now been released to confirm his age and to counter false media reports that he was over 20 years old. In addition, the family has provided the name and age of a 17 year old cousin, Ahmed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed in the same strike with Abdulrahman last Friday while they were enjoying a nighttime barbecue.
So far, I’ve seen no claims issued by the US that Abdulrahman was a militant. Instead, the implicit assumption is that Abdulrahman was collateral damage in a strike that was targeted at Ibrahim al-Bana, who is described as the media chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. By contrast, Anwar al-Awlaki was placed on Obama’s official “hit list” of persons targeted for killing. The US has made multiple accusations against him, but those allegations have not been substantiated. Here is the Indian publication Frontline on the veracity of the US accusations:
After the events of September 11, 2001, Awlaki was among the small group of radicalised American Muslims who threw in their lot with Al Qaeda. His sermons in English with an American accent urging Muslims to wage jehad against the West reputedly had a wide fan following on YouTube and other websites. After a U.S. Army officer of Palestinian origin, Major Nidal Mallik Hassan, went on a killing spree in a military base at Fort Hood in November 2009, Awlaki’s name hit the headlines. It was reported that the U.S. Army veteran was in touch with Awlaki before he went on the rampage in which 13 people were killed. Awlaki had denied having encouraged Hassan in any way but later praised his act saying that it had prevented the U.S. soldiers who were killed from being deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq where they “would have killed Muslims”.
Awlaki was also blamed for attempts to blow up American passenger planes, though the claims have not been substantiated. The Obama administration linked Awlaki with the failed Christmas 2009 attempt of Umar Farrouk Abdulmutallib, the “underwear bomber”, to bring down a Detroit-bound plane. Awlaki was also accused of playing a key role in the October 2010 “mail bomb” plot. Packets containing bombs, originating from Yemen and bound for the U.S., were intercepted in Dubai and Europe. In May 2010, a Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in Manhattan told the U.S. authorities that he was inspired by Awlaki’s sermons.
In one of his sermons recorded in early 2010, Awlaki urged American Muslims to stage attacks. “Jehad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.”
But if reports in the Arab media are anything to go by, Awlaki was only a minor cog, used mainly for propaganda purposes, in Al Qaeda’s major network. His fluency in both English and Arabic coupled with his knowledge of the Quran helped him gather a big fan following, especially among the youth. Experts on Yemen have said that he had no operational role in Al Qaeda. The top commanders are Yemenis and Saudis who have been leading the fight against the U.S. presence in the region for many years. The AQAP’s main leadership continues to be intact and is no doubt busy hatching new terror plans. Awlaki was forced to flee into the desolate mountain region where his tribe is located and where Al Qaeda has a presence in order to escape from the Americans, who had put a bounty on his head. Continue reading
On Saturday, I wrote about a series of Friday drone attacks in southern Yemen. The most prominent of these attacks killed Ibrahim al-Bana, who is described as the media chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This same attack, however, also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric targeted and killed last month in Yemen in another US drone attack.
Yesterday, the al-Awlaki family spoke out for the first time since the deaths, granting interviews with the Washington Post. Notably, it turns out that Adbulrahman was only 16 years old, despite many media reports (including the AP report as carried in the Post that I quoted Saturday) that he was 21. Here is how Abdulrahman’s grandfather (Anwar’s father) described the killing:
“To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qaeda militant. It’s nonsense,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni agriculture minister who was Anwar al-Awlaki’s father and the boy’s grandfather, speaking in a phone interview from Sanaa on Monday. “They want to justify his killing, that’s all.”
And Abdulrahman wasn’t the only teenager killed in this attack. His 17 year old Yemeni cousin also died. In fact, the family claims the attack took place at a nighttime barbecue and several teenagers were killed:
In a separate statement Monday, the Awlaki family said that Abdulrahman “along with some of his tribe’s youth have gone barbecuing under the moonlight. A drone missile hit their congregation killing Abdulrahman and several other teenagers.”
As MadDog alerted us this morning, there were multiple strikes against alleged terrorist targets in southern Yemen Friday night. What stands out to me in scanning the various media reports about these attacks is that even though it is crystal clear that these attacks are carried out by US drones firing missiles, Yemeni defense officials try to claim that the attacks are carried out by the Yemeni air force. This is an interesting contrast to the approach taken by Pakistani officials, where even though the official position of Pakistan’s government is that US missile strikes are not allowed, Pakistani officials make no efforts to claim the strikes as their own, allowing the assumption that the strikes are carried out by the US to go unchallenged.
The most recent report on the strikes in Yemen that I can find is this brief update from Reuters [Note: the Reuters article was revised and expanded significantly while this post was being written; the passage quoted is from the earlier version and no longer appears directly as quoted, but the drone death toll of 24 and government claim of responsibility survives.]:
The death toll from air strikes that killed a senior al Qaeda official in southern Yemen has risen to 24, local officials said on Saturday.
The Defense Ministry said Yemeni aircraft had carried out the attack on Friday night.
This report has the highest death toll I’ve seen on the story and includes the note that Yemeni officials claim they carried out the attacks. By contrast, the CNN report on the attacks puts the death toll at only 7 and reports that there were three drone attacks. This report, although it quotes Yemeni officials, is silent on responsibility for this attack, although it does reference the earlier attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki as having been carried out by the US [Note: this article also was updated, with the death toll up to 9 now.]:
The son of U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was among those killed in a trio of drone attacks in southern Yemen on Friday night, a security official said.
The attacks, carried out in the Shabwa district, killed seven suspected militants, the defense ministry said. It would not confirm that Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki was among them.
The senior security official in Shabwa, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the younger Awlaki had been hiding in the mountains of Shabwa for more than eight months. He had first-hand knowledge of the death, he said.
It is widely acknowledged that with the death of Osama bin Laden and a number of other high level leaders, al Qaeda is severely crippled in its one-time haven of Pakistan. Rather than acknowledging this victory in the primary objective of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan (passed on September 18, 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks) and beginning to phase out the War on Terror, the US instead is finding a new target in Pakistan and building bases from which to launch even more drone attacks in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, moves which amount to a significant expansion of the war effort.
In Pakistan, the Washington Post reports that the US is applying extreme pressure on Pakistan to dissolve the relationship between the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) and the Haqqani network:
The Obama administration has sharply warned Pakistan that it must cut ties with a leading Taliban group based in the tribal region along the Afghan border and help eliminate its leaders, according to officials from both countries.
In what amounts to an ultimatum, administration officials have indicated that the United States will act unilaterally if Pakistan does not comply.
This threat of unilateral action is unlikely to be seen as mere bluster since the hit on bin Laden was unilateral.
It turns out that the Haqqani network is yet another example of a group the US helped to form only to become one of its targets:
The organization was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani as one of the resistance groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with U.S. and Pakistani assistance. In the Afghan civil war that followed, Haqqani sided with the Taliban forces that took power in Kabul in 1996. His fighters fled after the Taliban overthrow in late 2001 to Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials think they are in close coordination with al-Qaeda forces.
Pakistani intelligence maintained close connections to the network, now operationally led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the founder’s son, as a hedge against the future in Afghanistan.
The Post article goes on to speculate that the Haqqani network’s attack on the US embassy in Kabul last week may have been final act to drive such strong language coming from Washington.
As if the declaration of a new enemy in Pakistan worthy of unilateral US action were not enough in the escalation of US war efforts, we also learn from the Washington Post that a new network of bases for drones is being built:
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
Recall that just last week, the Obama administration was depicted as being in an internal debate on the legality of expanding the drone war outside of Pakistan to these very areas where the bases are being built. Considering that the bases are now already under construction, last week’s “debate” story would appear to have been nothing more than a mere academic exercise whose outcome had already been determined.
Only a fool would bet against Washington choosing more war in more locations.