Is It Okay to Admit the US Is Behind the Drone Strikes Now?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted something interesting in its coverage of the latest drone strikes in Yemen. The government is admitting to drone strikes, and thus presumably to our role in them.

Two to three suspected ‘al Qaeda militants’ were killed in the double strike which Xinhua initially reported as ‘a botched air strike carried out by Yemeni warplanes.’ But three Yemeni security officials have since told CNN it was a drone strike.

I think–but am not sure–that this is not new. That is, I think Yemen changed its policy of pretending it had launched any drone attacks some years ago. But 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” told China’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.

CNN also has a source (potentially one of those three security officials) making it clear that they’ve gotten terror threats against diplomatic targets in Sanaa.

The Interior Ministry warned on Tuesday that al Qaeda is planning to conduct suicide operations in Sanaa.

Tight security presence was noticeable near Western embassies and in the diplomatic zone of the capital.

“The ministry has been given intelligence information warning of a possible attack in the heart of the Yemeni capital and we are on high alert,” one Interior Ministry official told CNN on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Now, I don’t think this is a new development. That is, I assume this is not the first time that Yemeni officials blamed civilian strike deaths on US drones. But particularly in the face of questions about who leaked news of the UndieBomb (I’m increasingly convinced, btw, that Robert Mueller retrieved the UndieBomb when he made a surprise visit on April 24, which would mean some Yemenis would have been involved in the handoff), I find it interesting that the Yemenis are no longer willing to take the fall for poor Saudi pinpointing American targeting.

Update: Jim reminds me that this has been going on since at least October, when he examined a similar instance in-depth. And the Aviationist suggests (via David Axe) one thing Yemenis may be covering up with strikes they claim are not our drones, but our F-15s.

Some of the air strikes in Yemen were reportedly launched with the support of warplanes believed to be Yemeni Air Force ones. But there are also chances that U.S. conventional planes have been involved in air-to-surface operations officially or unofficially credited to the Yemeni government.

7 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Apart from Yemenis distancing themselves from attacks and deaths caused by piloted and remote-piloted US military aircraft, these inconsistent reports generate fog about who is attacking whom and for what ends. That generally aids only the attackers, not their victims or critics.

  2. MadDog says:

    “…And the Aviationist suggests (via David Axe) one thing Yemenis may be covering up with strikes they claim are not our drones, but our F-15s…”

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) We know for a fact that Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jets have been used before in airstrikes within Yemen. These planes are typically based on Navy ships like the smaller helicopter carriers and other ships like the USS Bataan (LHD-5) and the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7). Both the USS Bataan and the USS Iwo Jima rotate into this area. Via today’s AP piece:

    “…The U.S. also has a substantial naval presence near Yemen. U.S. Navy ships arrived in the area over the weekend on a routine rotation, carrying about 2,000 Marines aboard vessels including the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima…”

    2) One reason for using F-15E Strike Eagles is that they are manned by 2 people; the pilot and a weapons systems officer (wizzo) in the back seat, and are specifically designed for all-weather, day or night ground attack missions in addition to their air-superiority role. They are used in Afghanistan for ground attack missions.

    3) The Hellfire missile that US drones fire is a “relatively” small weapon of about 100lbs. Manned US aircraft however like the F-15E can carry far more massive ordnance like the 2000lb Mark 84 or 2000lb GBU-31 JDAM weapons.

    The 2000lb GBU-31 JDAM is a GPS-guided version of the dumb Mark 84 bomb.

    If the US is using manned aircraft in Yemen like F-15Es and/or other manned aircraft, again, this is a pretty major escalation of the US war in Yemen. In addition, the usage of heavy-duty weaponry like that carried by F-15Es, and even AV-8Bs, is also a serious escalation of US warfare in Yemen.

  3. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: As I mentioned yesterday, I theorized that John Brennan’s meeting this past Sunday with Yemen’s president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi might have been about “formalizing” a major shift in US-Yemen policy, and more specifically, a more active US military role in fighting the war in Yemen.

    A couple of additional thoughts about this “theory”:

    1) The Obama Administration is at this time making no formal acknowledgement or mention of this policy change and desires that it still be “covert” and under the radar so to speak.

    This desire is likely to be overtaken by reality. Already the journalists of AP and CNN are starting to ask questions about this change in US policy in Yemen.

    2) As I’ve also mentioned previously here at Rancho Emptywheel, the Obama Administration is likely running this covert war under the auspices of the 9/11 AUMF rather than a required Congressional Declaration of War.

    Personally, I don’t think this is right. Particularly because of the escalation in the war in Yemen. I suggest that this US escalation results in not only war against AQAP, but also against Yemeni government opposition forces, and yes, as EW has repeatedly pointed out, also in service to Saudi interests.

    An analogy I’d like to throw out here is with the situation in Syria.

    Consider what you’d think if the US government was militarily supporting the Assad regime in Syria and starting attacking Syrian opposition forces because Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had aligned itself with the Syrian opposition forces.

    I think that is the very same road we’re going down in the war in Yemen. The US has chosen a side in the Yemen government, and any in opposition to that government are going to become targets of US weaponry.

  4. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: I should mention that the AP has updated their reporting since I linked to it this morning. Here’s some of the updates:

    “Yemeni military officials said dozens of U.S. troops were operating from al-Annad air base, about 65 kilometers (45 miles) from the main battle zones, coordinating assaults and airstrikes and providing information to Yemeni forces.

    The officials said it was the most direct American involvement yet in the country’s expanding campaign against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen…


    …Several Yemeni military officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday that unlike in previous, failed offensives against the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida, this time the United States was providing direct logistical support to the Yemeni forces.

    Nearly 60 U.S. troops were at al-Annad base in Lahj province, neighboring Abyan, which has become a command center. “They brought their mobile houses and buildings for a long stay,” one official said. Another official said that along with coordinating the assault, U.S. personnel at the base were overseeing strikes by U.S. drone aircraft…”

  5. MadDog says:


    “…1) The Obama Administration is at this time making no formal acknowledgement or mention of this policy change and desires that it still be “covert” and under the radar so to speak.

    This desire is likely to be overtaken by reality. Already the journalists of AP and CNN are starting to ask questions about this change in US policy in Yemen…”

    Regarding my first point, from today’s press briefing at DOD:

    “…Q: On Yemen, reports of an assault by Yemeni troops on al-Qaida militants, Yemeni officials saying that this was carried out with U.S. support. They say that these — attack of these — this assault was with direct guidance from U.S. troops in the country. What can you tell us about the type of support that U.S. forces provided?

    MR. LITTLE: We have long-standing counterterrorism cooperation with the government of Yemen. They have taken aggressive action inside their own country against militants that would like to thwart or to plan attacks against the Yemenis and to plan attacks against the United States and other countries. I’m not going to get into the specifics of reported operations inside Yemen. But we believe that the government of Yemen has taken on, in a decisive manner, the need to go after militants that are located inside their own country.

    CAPT. KIRBY: A large part of what we’re doing there is just trying to help build their capacity to take on these kinds of missions as well.

    I’m — I agree, George. We’re not going to get into the details of CT operations, counterterrorism operations. You understand that. But just so you understand that the mission there really is to help build their capacity to deal with the threat inside their own borders.

    Q: Can I follow up? As described in the article and the rules mandating their operations in Yemen, does that sound feasible given what restrictions they’re under, what described in — what we just described? Is that feasible in what you just said under the parameters of their current mission, which is to train?

    CAPT. KIRBY: It’s to build their capacity. And again, we’re not going to get into the details of all that — all that comes under counterterrorism operations. But the secretary was clear about this last week. You know, we do — we do conduct operations with the Yemenis to get after terrorist targets. We’re not — again, not going to go into the details of that. But a large part of that effort, Luis, is helping them build their capacity to do it by themselves…”

    Shorter DOD: “We’re not going to admit anything until we’re forced to.”

  6. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: If only LBJ had said “build their capacity” over and over, he’d have been reelected. It’s like magic.

  7. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Heh!

    I’m reminded of an illusionist’s sleight of hand. Keep the audience’s attention on that “building capacity” thingie, keep waving it around, and they’ll forget all about their original question regarding US operations.

    I’m probably giving short shrift to the attending journalists. If I had to guess, they aren’t buying the DOD’s illusion and I bet will continue to pick away at this.

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