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Growing anger over American drones in Yemen

Civilian casualties increase anti-American sentiment

by Abdurrahman Shamlan, The Media Line

May 13, 2013 | 3:16 pm

Drone. Photo by U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Reuters

Drone. Photo by U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Reuters

"Mrs. Michele Obama: Tell us can your husband sleep after so many innocent people were killed by his drones?" read a banner held by a Yemeni activist at a recent rally to protest increasing American drone strikes in Yemen.

The rally reflected the growing anti-American feeling among Yemenis, who strongly oppose increasing drone strikes that sometimes result in the killing of innocent civilians, including women and children.

So while American forces are succeeding in hitting gunmen in Al-Qa'ida, the drone strikes have also fueled anger against the US, especially in areas regularly vulnerable to the attacks. 

"The negative aspects of drones greatly outweigh their gains," Saeed Obaid, a Yemeni analyst and expert on anti-terrorism and chairman of the Al-Jahmi Center for Studies, told The Media Line.

The 2011 political deadlock eventually resulting in then President Ali Abdullah Saleh's resignation caused Saleh's government to cut back on its anti-terrorism cooperation with the US. Washington therefore began using an increasing number of drones to contain Yemen's local franchise of Al-Qa'ida, which exploited the unrest and took control of large portions of south and southeastern Yemen.

Based in Yemen's mountainous areas, Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered by Washington to be the most dangerous cell of the global terror network.

Government officials say they have no figures on the number of US drone attacks, but human rights organizations, the press, and other observers agree drone strikes hit a record high last year.

There is disagreement, however, over the exact number of attacks, with The Associated Press (AP) claiming 40 strikes in 2012 but Yemen's National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) recording 81 last year. AP reported nine so far this year.

"The Long War Journal", a Web site that reports on the battle against international terror, reported that in 2012 alone it had confirmed 228 deaths from drone attacks, including 35 civilians. However, the Yemen-based civil rights group Maonah Association for Human Rights and Immigration put the dead at over 300 people, mostly civilians.

Those living in areas frequently targeted by the unmanned planes say their lives have been significantly affected by the drones.

"The American strikes have had a huge psychological impact on the citizens as we don't know when and where the next American drone is going to strike," Khaled Alabd, a Yemeni reporter and activist based in his home town of Lawdar – an Al-Qa'ida stronghold -- told The Media Line. "Indeed, the sound of these drones that keep roaming our sky instills fear into our hearts. Many civilians were killed, and we never knew when we might be hit by a missile.

"With every American drone attack resulting in civilian deaths, anti-American sentiments increase against Washington as well as against the government which endorses these attacks," he said.

The protests against the drones have been stepped-up recently. Last week, dozens of Yemeni human rights activists held a rally in front of the US embassy here to denounce the drone strikes and demand an immediate halt to what they called "extrajudicial killings."

They also sent a letter to US President Barack Obama expressing their anger over the drone policy and continuous American violation of Yemen's sovereignty.

"We sent this message to Obama as Yemeni citizens whose country has been pounded by American predators ever since he came to power…All Yemenis stand against terrorism but they also stand against the illegal and immoral use of drones in the war against terrorism," Mohammed Abdu Al-Absi, a well-known journalist and a leading figure at the protest, told The Media Line.

"Extrajudicial killings by the American predators are crimes against humanity," he said, adding, "We respect American laws, so they have to respect ours  and help us do the same, not violate the laws themselves by infringing on our sovereignty and killing people without a trial.

"Killing a civilian or a terrorist by American predators is like gunning down people who participate in peaceful protests, with the only difference in the identity of the predator," he continued.

Other activists agreed.

"We are against terrorists, but we are also against this illegal American way of killing people. Everyone has the right to a fair trial and the drones take this right away as they kill people without convictions," Mohammed Alaw, head of the Maonah Association, told The Media Line. "This strategy ignores the well-known principle that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty."

The rally came just days after a Yemeni activist whose village was struck by an American drone a week earlier delivered moving testimony on the ill effects of drones before a meeting of the American Senate Judiciary Committee

Farea Al-Muslimi, 22, of the Yemeni village of Wessab explained how his village had been mostly pro-American, largely because of his descriptions of the wonderful year of high school he spent in the US. A drone strike in Wessab against a man whom Muslimi insisted could easily have simply been arrested changed all that.  

"What the violent militants have previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab. This is not an isolated incident – the drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis," he said in his testimony.

"I believe in America and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the US airstrikes have caused and how much they are harming the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program."

While the drones have also helped the Yemeni government retake areas taken over by Al-Qa'ida-affiliated fighters in 2011, Yemeni analysts agree with Al-Muslimi that they do more harm than good in fighting terrorism.

Obaid of the al-Jahmi Center told The Media Line, "No one can deny the gains of the drones in the war against terrorism, but no one can deny their ill effects, either."

"Actually the drones have helped America get rid of high-ranking Al-Qa'ida leaders, but simultaneously they helped the terror group garner more supporters and sympathizers," he said.

"With every civilian casualty, Al-Qaida garners a thousand new supporters ranging from fighters to sympathizers. Such attacks also adversely affect the liberal forces, as people tend to support extremist groups out of sympathy," journalist Al-Absi said.

Abdusalam Mohammed, Chairman of the Abaad Studies and Research Center, a non-profit Yemeni organization, said he believes that the biggest negative aspect of the American drones is the lack of transparency.

"The American use of drones is surrounded by ambiguity: Their technology and techniques are kept secret and so are their goals and strategies," he told The Media Line.

"Unfortunately, the United States is only looking out for its short term gains in eliminating such terrorists, when it should also consider the interests of the country on whose soil its drones strike," he said.

Underscoring his point, Mohammed cited the killing of the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awiaki in 2011 as an example.

The US considered killing Al-Awiaki a victory in the war against terror, but in fact this has had huge adverse effects on the ground, Mohammed said, adding: "That attack cost Yemen millions of dollars to the retaliatory sabotage attacks on oil pipelines in the region and helped Al-Qa'ida gain more popularity and garner wide public support."

Obaid and Mohammed agreed that civilian casualties significantly decreased after the regime changed, attributing this to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour  Hadi's being a more reliable partner in the war against terrorism than his predecessor.

Mohammed concluded, however, "To avoid ever-increasing wide public anger, Sana'a and Washington have to reassess their strategy in their cooperation on the war in a way that helps both countries fight terrorism without infringing on Yemen's sovereignty and which promises no killing of civilians."

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