01 May

A young Yemeni writer on the impact and morality of drone-bombing his country

By Glenn Greenwald

The 24-year-old Ibrahim Mothana speaks eloquently and insightfully about
what the US is doing to his country. We should listen

Glenn Greenwald

Wednesday 1 May 2013


Ibrahim Mothana is a 24-year-old Yemeni writer and activist. I first became
aware of him when he wrote an
extraordinary Op-Ed in the New York Times last year
urging Americans to
realize how self-destructive and counter-productive was Obama’s escalating drone
campaign in his country, writing:

Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join
radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of
revenge and despair. . . .

“Anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Yemen than in Pakistan. But rather
than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating
them by killing their relatives and friends. . . . Certainly, there may be
short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but
they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is
causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious
retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes. . . .

“Unfortunately, liberal voices in the United States are largely ignoring, if
not condoning, civilian deaths and extrajudicial killings in Yemen — including
the assassination of three American citizens in September 2011, including a
16-year-old. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the rage would have been
tremendous. But today there is little outcry, even though what is happening is
in many ways an escalation of Mr. Bush’s policies.

“Defenders of human rights must speak out. America’s counterterrorism policy
here is not only making Yemen less safe by strengthening support for A.Q.A.P.
[al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] but it could also ultimately endanger the
United States and the entire world.”

Since then, I’ve watched his work and have periodically spoken with him on
various matters, and am unfailingly impressed by the thoughtful, smart and
sophisticated way he thinks about these issues. Ibrahim was invited to travel to
Washington to testify before a Senate sub-committee which met last week to
examine the legality and wisdom of Obama’s drone program. He was unable to
attend, so one of his friends, Farea al-Muslimi, testified instead, and was eloquent
and powerful

But Ibrahim prepared what would have been his opening remarks to the
Committee and has sent them to me (the Committee has also agreed to publish them
in the Congressional Record). I’m publishing them here in full because they are
remarkably insightful and poignant, and because Americans hear far too little
from the people in the countries which their government continues to bomb,
attack, and otherwise interfere in. I really hope as many people as possible
will take the time to read his words:

Written testimony of Ibrahim Mothana for the United States Senate Judiciary
Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and members of the Subcommittee, thank
you for the opportunity to provide my written testimony on the critical issue of
the increasing US targeted killings in Yemen.

Yemen and the United States of America

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I would like to tell you about my
country. The people of our two countries share many of the same dreams although
many Americans may not realize this, in part because of a media that focuses on
terrorism to the exclusion of a broader understanding of Yemen. Al-Qaida and its
associates in Yemen, at the most extreme estimates, number a few thousand
members, no more than a tiny fragment of our 24 million people who hope and
dream of a better future — one that offers them dignity, freedom, and economic

We are the poorest country in the Middle East with over 50 percent of our
people living on less than 2 dollars a day. We are running out of water and out
of oil, our major source of foreign revenue. Our nation has been troubled by
decades of conflicts and an irresponsible, corrupt governments. A lot of my
childhood friends are unemployed and live a daily struggle to maintain their
basic human needs. In 2011, millions of Yemenis who lived decades under one
autocratic ruler rose up in a largely peaceful revolution calling for democracy,
accountability and justice, the very values cherished in American democracy.

Many young people like me grew up looking to America and its people for
inspiration. Among many other things my teenage years were enriched by Carl
Sagan’s Cosmos, Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches, Mark Twain’s sarcasm and
American TV shows. The promise of equality and freedom seemed fulfilled when
America elected its first black president. With an upsurge of happiness, many
Yemenis celebrated the inauguration day and, at that point, President Obama was
more popular among my friends than any other Yemeni figure. I was inspired by
President Obama’s promise of “a new era of leadership that will bring back
America’s credibility on human rights Issues and reject prioritizing safety to

But happiness and inspiration gave way to misery. My admiration for the
American dream and Obama’s promises has become overshadowed by the reality of
the American drones strike nightmare in Yemen.

The Impact on Yemen and its People of the US Targeted Killing Policy

In the past few years, I have visited and worked in areas of Yemen that are
the forefront of what the United States views as a global conflict against
Al-Qaeda and associated forces. I have witnessed how the US use of armed drones
and botched air strikes against alleged militant targets has increased
anti-American sentiment in my country, prompting some Yemenis to join violent
militant groups, motivated more by a desire for revenge than by ideological

We Yemenis got our first experience with targeted killings under
the Obama administration on December 17, 2009, with a cruise missile strike in
al-Majala, a hamlet in a remote area of southern Yemen. This attack killed 44
people including 21 women and 14 children, according to Yemeni and international
rights groups including Amnesty International. The lethal impact of that strike
on innocents lasted long after it took place. On August 9, 2010, two locals were
killed and 15 were injured from an explosion of one remaining cluster bomb from
that strike.

After that tragic event in 2009, both Yemeni and US
officials continued a policy of denial that ultimately damaged the credibility
and legitimacy of the Yemeni government. According to a leaked US diplomatic
cable, in a meeting on January 2, 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi
joked about how he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni parliament the bombs in
the al-Majala attack were dropped by the Yemenis, and then-President Ali
Abdullah Saleh made a promise to General Petreaus, then the then head of US
central command, saying: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Such collusion added insult to injury to Yemenis.

Animosity has been
heightened by the US use of so-called “signature strikes” that target
military-age males and groups by secret, remote analysis of lifestyle patterns.
In Yemen, we fear that the signature strike approach allows the Obama
administration to falsely claim that civilian casualties are non-existent. In

the eye of a signature strike, it could be that someone innocent like me is seen
as a militant until proven otherwise. How can a dead person prove his innocence?
For the many labeled as militants when they are killed, it’s difficult to verify
if they really were active members of groups like AQAP, let alone whether they
deserved to die.

In Yemen, we know that the reliability of the intelligence the United States
uses to launch and report drone strikes is questionable. For instance, the
Yemeni authorities have claimed three times that Saeed al-Shiri, the
second-in-command of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was
killed by a drone strike. According to Yemeni and international media, at least
30 other suspected militants were announced to be killed in these strikes. But
as recently as April 8, 2013, Shihri appeared to be alive. So who were the
dozens of people killed in the three strikes that allegedly killed Shihri?

In the majority of cases, we Yemenis receive no explanation about why
suspected militants are killed and what threat they posed to the United States.
If the intelligence misidentified Shihri, the suspected militants who were
killed in these incidents might just be random people who were in the wrong

We Yemenis are deeply worried that the Obama administration appears to be
avoiding the Guantanamo dilemma of indefinite detentions without charge by
killing suspects in Yemen rather than trying to capture them. An example is the
November 7, 2012 targeted killing of Adnan al-Qadhi, who was a lieutenant
colonel in the Yemeni army and reported to be a suspected al-Qaida militant in
Sanhan, a district 22 miles east from the Yemeni capital and a 15-minute drive
from where I live. Sanhan is near to one of the biggest bases of the Republican
Guard, at the time one of Yemen’s most powerful military units. According to his
family members, Yemeni authorities could have arrested Adnan any time. Adnan’s
brother Hemyar al-Qadhi told me, “Adnan was arrested and released by the
government in 2008 and we would’ve taken him ourselves to the authorities if
they requested him again.”

We Yemenis ask ourselves, how many more of
our citizens were killed without any attempt at capture instead? Why is it that
in the four years that John Brennan was the top counterterrorism advisor, only
one so-called “high-value target” was arrested anywhere outside the United

More Human Costs and the Consequences of US Targeted Killing Policy

During my visits to Abyan, Shabwa and Radaa, three areas of central and
southern Yemen where the US has carried out targeted killings, I was overwhelmed
with sadness meeting families of drone victims suffering a miserable combination
of personal loss and devastating economic burden. Many of the children of strike
victims that I saw were severely malnourished and families who lost their main
financial provider had little hope for the future. For many of the youngsters,
death seemed an easier burden than life so, with this bleak outlook, they joined
the fight against the government.

With drones flying overhead 24/7, people are living in constant fear and
anxiety over the possibility of another strike. During my visits to these areas,
I shared their fear. I felt as Adel al-Jonaidi, a high school student living in
Radaa did, when he told me, “Whenever drones are hovering in the area, it’s like
being in a state of waiting endlessly for execution.”

The more
unjustified the drone strike victim, the more rage it creates within local
communities. Angry reaction followed in Hadramout when Salem Ahmed Bin Ali
Jaber, a moderate cleric who often denounced violence and publicly opposed
al-Qaeda, was killed in a drone strike on August 25, 2012. Such strikes call
into question US claims of tidy surgical strikes and explain why the number of
AQAP estimated fighters increased from a few hundred in 2009 to a few thousand
in 2013, according to Yemeni and US government estimates.

In another
botched strike, a missile struck a passenger van in central al-Bayda governorate
on September 2, 2012, killing 12 civilians, 3 of them children. Local and
international media initially quoted anonymous Yemeni officials as saying the
strike targeted militants, but state-run media later conceded the killings were
an “accident” that killed civilians. During a recent visit to Radaa, the city
near the attack site, I met Mohamed Mabkhoot, a relative of one of the civilians
who was killed. Mabkhoot explained how months after the attack there is still
mounting rage at the apathy and inability of the Yemeni government to bring
justice for those affected by the strike.

“Our lives are not worthless and it’s common sense that people start hating
America when their innocent relatives and family members are killed. Young
people here are desperate and will fight to die if they don’t have anything left
for them to live for,” he told me.

Drone strikes and US military
intervention are the rallying cry that al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen use
to recruit more fighters. In a country like Iraq, al-Qaeda was created from
scratch after 2003, seizing on the existing local grievances the war created.
Something similar is happening here in Yemen. During my visits to different
parts of my country, even though I hear broad opposition to AQAP, I also hear
objections to foreign intervention by the United States.

Even natural
allies of the United States like young leaders, intelligentsia and the upper
middle class feel that the targeted killings infringe on Yemen’s sovereignty.
Many of us ruefully repeat a line from one President Obama’s press conference on
November 18, 2012: “There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles
raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

Moreover, it’s
vital to grasp the intricacies of our society’s reality, where tribal dynamics
and laws are vital in largely under-governed areas. In Yemen, killing a person
without trial is not only extrajudicial, it also violates the sovereignty and
dignity of the entire tribe to which the slain person belonged. Each tribe is
responsible for defending and ensuring the safety of its members. Understanding
the tribal system and traditions is key to winning hearts and minds of the local
populations and to gaining their support. The lack of any apology, compensation
or damage control-mechanisms, outrages tribes and local populations in the
affected areas.

In one case, a drone strike exacerbated my country’s
already serious political and economic difficulties. On May 25, 2010, a US drone
strike killed Jabr al-Shabwani, a prominent sheikh and deputy governor of Marib
province who was a US counterterrorism ally After Sheikh Shabwani was killed by
the strike, his tribe carried out retaliatory attacks on my country’s main oil
pipeline, which runs through Marib, costing Yemen billions of dollars. This is
no small matter when you consider that 70 percent of Yemen’s national budget
relies on oil exports. The strike also erased years of progress and
trust-building between the US and other tribes who had helped fight Al Qaeda in
their areas; they considered the killing a betrayal.

The Targeted Killing Policy is Counter-Productive

Many of us in Yemen believe that even strikes that kill AQAP leaders can be
counterproductive. The short-term military gains are miniscule compared to the
long-term damage that the targeted killing program causes. In the place of one
slain leader, new leaders swiftly emerge in furious retaliation for attacks in
their territories. And with each strike, it becomes ever easier to belong to a
militant group in the region where your tribe lives.

As Khaled Toayman, a
young Sheikh from Marib and a son of a Yemeni member of parliament told me, “We
are against terrorism and we seek to live in peace and dignity like anyone else
in the world. I don’t hate America or Americans. I just want to know why my
relatives are killed.”

In my visits to the areas affected by drone
strikes, I observed an increasing sentiment that America is part of a problem
and not a solution, something that is hard for diplomats to feel while living
disconnected from Yemenis in the emerging Green Zones of Sanaa. In Yemen, it’s
impossible to win a war with drone strikes where basic services and human needs
remain unmet. For a loaf of bread, you can push a hungry, desperate and angry
young man to fight for al-Qaeda, possibly regardless of his ideological


Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, we Yemenis are the ones who suffer
the most from the presence of Al Qaeda and getting rid of this exhausting plague
is a top priority for the majority of people in the country. But we also see
that there is no easy way to end terrorism. Only a long-term approach that
strengthens democracy, accountability and justice, together with programs to
address structural economic and social drivers of extremism can bring about
security in my country.

When I think of solutions, I think of our common ideals. The drone program is
far from these. Edward S. Herman offers us a critique and an opportunity in his
reflection on Hana’s Arendt concept of the Banality of Evil: “Doing terrible
things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the
process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine
and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.’ ”

As a Yemeni citizen, I urge the US government not normalize crimes committed
under the name of your great country. I call on the US administration to be
transparent regarding the strikes it has authorized in Yemen and to compensate
affected civilians. I call on the United States to critically reflect on using
targeted strikes and the existing counterterrorism policy in Yemen and to see
that, it is insecurity and not security that these are creating in my country,
the region, the US, and the entire world.

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