by Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve
President Trump’s secret assassinations program in Yemen eclipses all that came before in scale and brutality, but very little was known about the mass human rights abuses committed there by his administration. Until now. Reprieve has been on the ground, documenting evidence of two massacres, talking to eye witnesses and tracing these abuses back to the US.
Here, we take a look at this program, its origins in the Bush and Obama administrations, and horrifying escalation under President Trump.
It was approved by President Trump casually over dinner – a midnight raid and drone strike on the village of Yakla in Yemen. Concerns about the quality of the intelligence and legality of the operation would later prove to be warnings he should have heeded, but he gave the order anyway.
What happened next was described by President Trump as a ‘win.’ Reprieve’s investigations have revealed that it was anything but. Instead, we have uncovered violations of international law that led to an appalling loss of life.
23 Yemini citizens were killed in Yakla, including 10 children aged 12 years and under, and an elderly man of 80. Even senior officials in the US administration have said the raid produced “no significant intelligence” and that “almost everything went wrong” on the night in question.
To understand what happened that night, we have to go back to a promise made by the Bush administration. Following the horrors of Guantánamo and the CIA’s program of rendition and torture, the US decided to do away with the discomfort of detaining people. In an attempt to avoid scrutiny, legal accountability and international condemnation for its barbaric practices, the US decided it would resort to killing people – covertly – instead.
The targeted killing program began. Drones circled villages in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia – watching, listening and killing. The program grew under President Obama, and so did the death toll.
Under this system, the President became judge, jury and executioner all in one – personally signing off on every kill at a meeting every Tuesday. This became known as ‘Terror Tuesday.’
Our government compiled a ‘Kill List’ of suspected enemies, who are targeted for assassination. Following their tradition of using sinister euphemisms to conceal wrongdoing, it was named “the disposition matrix..”
But the targeted killing program turned out to be anything but targeted. The CIA’s own leaked documents concede that they often do not know who they are killing, and that ‘militant leaders’ account for just 2% of drone-related deaths. Over 250 children have been killed in Pakistan and Yemen. The program requires no evidence that targets pose a threat, due process is laid to waste and there is no scrutiny or accountability.
More than 80% of those killed have never even been identified by name. In numerous attempts to kill one individual, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults, while totally failing to assassinate their target. To get around the problem of mounting casualties, everyone in a strike zone was classified as a combatant.
Then Trump became president.
In his first six months in office, President Trump has overseen a dramatic increase in drone strikes in Yemen; based on current figures, in the first year of his presidency he will conduct more than five times the number of strikes in Yemen as compared with 2016. He has also ripped up the limited safeguards President Obama put in place. This is now industrial-scale execution, hugely expanded in both scale and callousness, conducted with no regard for human life or human rights.
In May 2017, a second raid in Yemen was carried out by US forces. Our investigation has revealed that five innocent Yemini citizens were killed and six were seriously injured. One of these killed was Nasser al-Adhal, who was around 70 years old and partially blind. Witnesses report that he was shot when he tried to greet the US soldiers, curious to know who was visiting his village.
The international human rights law that governs the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict permits the use of lethal force only in very narrow circumstances; specifically, only where it is “strictly unavoidable” in order to defend against an “imminent threat of death.”
But the raids on Yakla and Al-Jubah follow a pattern of ill-considered and legally questionable operations. The purpose of the raid in Yakla was initially reported as being to capture or kill a suspected terrorist leader. However, it quickly emerged that he was not in the village at the time.
Then the story changed. The Trump administration indicated that the aim of the “highly successful” mission was, instead, to gather intelligence. Once again, it was a case of supposedly “targeted” killing missing the target and massacring an entire community instead.
In the words of Secretary of Defence James Mattis, the first Yemen raid was a “game changer.” He is right – now the world can see the scale and reckless brutality of the atrocities being committed by our government.