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BBC documentary reveals United Arab Emirates assassination programme in South Yemen

A new documentary from BBC Arabic featuring Reprieve’s investigations has revealed that for many years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded and directed a secretive assassinations programme in southern Yemen targeting political opponents, which was responsible for the deaths of scores of people with no association with terrorist groups, including politicians, imams and members of civil society.

American Mercenaries: Killing in Yemen recounts how in 2015 the UAE hired a company of US-based mercenaries, Spear Operations Group, to carry out targeted assassinations and train ‘counter-terrorism forces’ operated by the UAE’s proxy in southern Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council.

In 2018, following reporting of Spear’s role in the targeted killing operation, US Senator Elizabeth Warren sent letters to the US Department of Justice and the State Department demanding an investigation. The documentary contains significant new details and brings events up to date. Two members of Spear, Isaac Gilmore and Dale Comstock, speak openly about their role in the assassinations programme, including the attempted assassination of Yemeni politician Ansaf Ali Mayo.

In recent weeks, the US and UK have taken airstrikes against Houthi forces based in Yemen, without parliamentary or congressional approval. This timely documentary underscores that any use of lethal force should comply with international law, be approved by legislative bodies, be subject to robust oversight, and involve accountability for those wrongfully killed or harmed.

Emirati authorities operate with zero parliamentary oversight or accountability. This investigation, documenting how the UAE hired US mercenaries to carry out a targeted killing operation against Yemeni political rivals, raises valid and concerning questions about what happens when the West outsources counter-terror operations to countries with few, if any, meaningful safeguards for preventing human rights abuses.

Revelations in the documentary include:

  • The BBC obtained a list of targets that Spear received from the UAE authorities, including Ansaf Ali Mayo, a leading member of the political party Al-Islah.
  • According to Spear member Isaac Gilmore, the company had a “requirement” of $1.5 million per month from the UAE authorities to carry out its activities in Yemen.
  • Reprieve acquired a document showing that $17 million was transferred from the UAE to Spear in 2020. It does not detail what the money was payment for.
  • A document obtained by the BBC suggests that the Southern Transitional Council recruited former members of Al-Qaeda to serve in ‘counter-terrorism’ groups responsible for assassinations. The BBC was able to verify several of their identities.
  • An apparent UAE ‘kill list,’ obtained by the BBC, included award-winning lawyer and investigator Huda al-Sarari, who was forced to leave Yemen following threats to her life and the assassination of her son, Mohsen.

In a statement, the UAE government told the BBC that the allegations were false; that it was untrue it had targeted individuals with no links to terrorism. 

The US State Department and the Department of Defense declined to comment. The CIA said in a statement: ‘the idea that the CIA signed off on such an operation is false.’

Politician Ansaf Ali Mayo, an acknowledged Spear assassination target, told the BBC: “What shocked me most was that they’d sent foreign mercenaries to kill us in our own country. Why would they want to kill me? What moral and legal justification could there be to cross the ocean and kill me in Aden? Why? What am I guilty of? Most of those targeted are activists.” 

Reprieve investigator Baraa Shiban told the BBC: “We need to be asking a lot of questions, especially about this company that is registered in the US. What did the United States know about this? What did the CIA know about this programme? Did they actually sign off on some of those members to go and carry out assassinations in South Yemen? These are all legitimate questions.”

American Mercenaries: Killing in Yemen will be broadcast on BBC2 at 11:15pm tonight.

It is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK here

It is now available worldwide on YouTube

You can read more about the investigation in this BBC News article.