Manned Flights Kill Civilians Too

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. Dozens of people rushed to the scene.

Residents say the plane circled back and came in low.

“We didn’t think it would come back,” says a witnesses who runs a nearby car repair shop. “Suddenly we see it come back … and shoot again.”

The witness says the second strike killed at least 12 people instantly. “They were cut … in pieces,” he says. A wall where the second strike hit is still covered with blood.

The witnesses claim the plane that did this was American. We ask them how they know it was American, and not part of the Yemeni Air Force.

The plane was gray, says one man. “It looked like an eagle. We don’t have planes like that,” he says.

I’m still not convinced we can be sure this was the US.

But it is a testament that just after the story of signatures strikes got reported (though possibly a month or longer after they began), someone took out a bunch of civilians buying breakfast, even targeting those who–as TBIJ has reported–rush out after the initial attack.

McEvers’ story, on the whole, supports the argument that drone strikes (and sloppy manned aircraft strikes) are creating more enemies in Yemen. But I’m particularly interested in the way and why this strike went so colossally wrong so quickly after–at least according to reports–the CIA (and possibly JSOC) changed its targeting procedures.

14 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    2 months from now, 6 months from now, a year, 3 years, when someone of Yemeni origin is identified as the person behind the downing of a US aircraft, the bombing of a US building, an attack against US citizens, the average American will exhibit absolutely no memory of the US strikes in Yemen, and angrily complain: “Why us? We didn’t do anything to them.”

    This is the foreign policy of a willful and witting amnesiac.

  2. Chris Woods says:

    Kelly’s eye-witness refers to a ‘plane’. But from its description that could also be a drone, imo.

    Back in May I asked Iona Craig a few follow-ups after she’d spoken with a survivor from Jaar for her USA Today piece

    Could he identify what kind of aircraft had carried out the attack?

    Iona told me: ‘He didn’t know who carried out the strike but said they didn’t hear any planes/fighter jets before either strike and they dived to the ground when they saw a ‘missile’ with a jet stream of ‘white smoke behind it’ flying through the sky towards them before the second strike happened.’

    Also worth noting that US jets were recently confirmed by WP as carrying out recent strikes in Yemen (long-rumoured)

    So Jaar could still be a US action even if not with a drone.

  3. MadDog says:

    @Chris Woods: The use of US manned aircraft in Yemen has even earlier confirmations.

    From an April 18, 2012 WaPo article by Greg Miller:

    “…Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear. In Pakistan, the CIA carries out every drone strike. But in Yemen, the United States has relied on a mix of capabilities, including drones flown by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as conventional military aircraft and warships parked off the coast…”

    (My Bold)

    And in a May 22, 2012 NYT article by Robert F. Worth and Eric Schmitt:

    “…This expanded American military assistance coincides with an increase in a coordinated series of drone attacks by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Flying from an allied air base in the region, United States F-15E attack planes are also conducting strikes against militant targets in Yemen, two American officials said…”

    (My Bold again)

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Just based on the damage shown in the picture in the piece by Kelly McEvers, it would seem to be done by something far larger than a drone’s 100 lb Hellfire missile with its 20 lb of high explosive.

    The damage done seems far more extensive to a number of buildings leading me to think it was done with much larger bombs (250, 500, 1,000 lb?) that are only carried (yet) by manned aircraft.

  5. Chris Woods says:

    @MadDog – Thanks for the other conventional aircraft refs from WP.

    Media shorthand aside, Reapers carry more than Hellfires. Usually a pair of 500lb GBU-12s too.

    @emptywheel It’s still possible imo that May 15 was the work of the Yemen Air Force. But how to tell? There are as many as 500 deaths which may – or may not – be the work of the US in Yemen, on top of the 300 TBIJ can firmly attribute.

    We’ve argued with the Pentagon that it’s in their interest to clarify. I’m sure you can guess the response.

  6. MadDog says:

    @Chris Woods: Yeah, if it was a MQ-9 Reaper, then it could do the damage seen with either GBU-12s or GBU-38 JDAMs.

    “…It’s still possible imo that May 15 was the work of the Yemen Air Force. But how to tell?…”

    There was this from the article by Kelly McEvers:

    “…The witnesses claim the plane that did this was American. We ask them how they know it was American, and not part of the Yemeni Air Force.

    The plane was gray, says one man. “It looked like an eagle. We don’t have planes like that,” he says…”

    (My Bold)

    Though perhaps not definitive, a Google Image search on “Yemeni Air Force” shows that their planes generally use a mottled desert tan camouflage paint scheme. US aircraft are generally painted gray.

    Though to be fair, changing a plane’s paint scheme is a rather minor task.

  7. MadDog says:

    Tangentially related to this post, from CNN:

    20 dead in drone attack in Pakistan

    “A suspected U.S. drone strike killed 20 people in North Waziristan, a region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a Pakistani intelligence official told CNN Friday.

    An officer from the political administration told CNN that six missiles struck a compound in Datakhel, an administrative division of North Waziristan…


    …In the incident, which occurred shortly after 10 p.m., two missiles struck the compound in the residential area followed by another four missiles that were fired 10 minutes later, the officer said. The death toll rose from nine to 20 as people who had gathered at the site after the first strike were hit in the second, the officer said.

    It was not clear if any of the dead were civilians…”

    (My Bold)

  8. P J Evans says:

    I’m thinking of a section of Rule 34 where it’s explained that the US got out of selling missiles to other countries (or using them there) after a rebel took out his governor with a Hellfire. The problem was the bigwig in the next limo in the motorcade. There was a line about using the words ‘collateral damage’ in combination with ‘President of the US’ in front of a congressional committee hearing.

  9. JTM says:

    This bit jumps out at me:

    The plane was gray, says one man. “It looked like an eagle. We don’t have planes like that,” he says.

    What does this man mean by “eagle”? Does he mean the bird or can the average Yemeni identify an F-15E by name?

  10. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Compare and contrast the evidently very different Rules Of Engagement (ROE) between signature strikes by US unmanned drone aircraft and those of a Navy F/A-18 as described in this NYT article by C. J. Chivers tonight:

    In a Dwindling War, Air Power as a Way of Life

    “Death stopped Abdul Qayum, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, in a fiery flash and roar.

    It was an evening in October last year, and Mr. Qayum was meeting several Afghans in a field. Though he did not know it, a Navy F/A-18 strike fighter was circling high overhead more than five miles away, summoned by an American Special Operations team. Its engines were out of earshot, the pilot said, “so we didn’t burn the target.”

    Mr. Qayum led a platoon-size Taliban group and was plotting to bomb an Afghan government office, an American intelligence officer said. Under Western rules guiding the use of deadly force, the pilot was barred from trying to kill him while he stood in a group of unidentified men.

    Then came a chance. The meeting ended, and Mr. Qayum approached a man who had pulled up on a motorcycle, the pilot and the intelligence officer said. Soon the two men were riding together on a dirt road, illuminated on the screen of the aircraft’s targeting sensor.

    The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, released an AGM-65E laser-guided missile. Visible on a video recording declassified and released to The New York Times, the missile struck the pair head-on, exploding with such energy that only fragments of Mr. Qayum’s remains were found…”

    And btw, that AGM-65E laser-guided missile is a 645 lb Maverick missile with a price-tag of anywhere between 17,000 to $160,000 depending on the variant.

  11. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And yes, that F/A-18 strike was in Afghanistan where killing civilians get a lot of attention, so I can see why the US targeting ROE has changed.

    But what does that say about US targeting ROEs in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines?

    Basically that the US gives a shit about killing civilians in Afghanistan, but not elsewhere? What other conclusion could we come to?

  12. spanishinquisition says:

    @MadDog: Actually there are drones out there that can carry bombs weighing up to 2000 pounds, like the Avenger can be armed to the teeth.

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