Evidence presented of US involvement in 2009 airstrike in Yemen

A December 2009 airstrike on insurgents in a known safe haven for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of both terrorists and civilians has been linked by to the US, according to photographic evidence produced by Amnesty International.

The photographs, released on Amnesty’s website today, show parts of a broken up, US-made, BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missile, as well as an unexploded BLU 97 cluster bomblet, munitions used in the warhead of the Tomahawk.

The Dec. 17, 2009, strike targeted what was thought to be a training camp run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the town of Ma’jalah in the province Abyan. A separate strike also took place the same day in the province of Sana’a.

The Yemeni government initially claimed it carried out the strikes in Abyan and Sana’a, and said that 34 al Qaeda fighters were killed and an additional 17 fighters were later captured in ground operations. Independent reports indicated that between 60 and 90 civilians, mostly nomads living in a tent city, were killed. Amnesty claims, based on a Yemeni government investigation, that 14 al Qaeda fighters, along with 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, were killed in the Abyan attack.

But within two days of the strikes, unnamed US intelligence officials acknowledged that the US participated in the strikes and used cruise missiles in the attacks. No official from the US Department of Defense publicly acknowledged involvement in the airstrikes.

US intelligence officials have since denied any direct role in subsequent airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen, but do say that the US is providing logistical and intelligence support to the Yemeni military. But the US is believed to have carried out some of the strikes in Yemen, including an attack on May 25 that killed a deputy governor of Marib province as he was meeting with al Qaeda. An unmanned US Predator, or the more deadly Reaper, was spotted in the region before the strike.

Amnesty has characterized the Dec. 17, 2009, airstrike in Abyan as the extrajudicial targeting of terrorists and said an effort should be made to “detain them.”

“A military strike of this kind against alleged militants without an attempt to detain them is at the very least unlawful,” Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in the organization’s press release.

Amnesty’s criticism of the Abyan attack comes just days after the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions called for an end to the CIA-run program that is targeting al Qaeda’s top leaders and external operations network in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Amnesty’s recommendation that the US should first attempt to detain terrorists in Yemen before launching strikes demonstrates a lack of understanding of al Qaeda’s control of regions in the country and the central government’s inability and unwillingness to tackle the terror network. Top members of the Yemeni government support al Qaeda, while the Yemeni security forces do not have the capacity to take on the terror group and its allied tribes head on.

Yemen has become one of al Qaeda’s most secure bases and a hub for its activities on the Arabian Peninsula and on the Horn of Africa. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula maintains safe havens in various parts of the country and is also known to operate terror camps in Aden, Marib, Abyan, and in the Alehimp and Sanhan regions in Sana’a. The terror group has conducted attacks on oil facilities, tourists, the US embassy in Sana’a, and Yemeni security forces.

Yemen serves as a command and control center, a logistics hub, a transit point from Asia and the Peninsula, and a source of weapons and munitions for the al Qaeda-backed Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in Somalia.

“Yemen is Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal in 2009. “You have military and government collusion with al Qaeda, peace agreements, budding terror camps, and the export of jihad to neighboring countries.”

Some of the top leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been targeted in airstrikes since December 2009, including Abu Basir al Wuhayshi, the group’s leader; Said Ali al Shihri, the second in command; Abu Hurayrah Qasim al Raymi, the military commander; Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, the top ideologue; and Anwar al Awlaki, a recruiter and ideologue.

Airstrikes in Yemen targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

Yemeni airstrike kills deputy governor, al Qaeda operatives

May 25, 2010

Yemeni airstrike hits al Qaeda camp

Mar. 14, 2010

Airstrikes target home of Yemeni al Qaeda leader

Jan. 20, 2010

Al Qaeda’s military commander in Yemen reported killed

Jan. 15, 2010

Yemeni airstrike targets top al Qaeda leaders

Dec. 24, 2009

US launches cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen

Dec. 17, 2009

A look at 10 of the most dangerous Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders:


Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    We always suspected it, truth is i would be angry if we did NOTHING. Yes, we are at war, so wherever they are, they are targeted. There is a US presence there, people know, i can only hope their mission is a success, i hope they find who we are looking for, and thats their end.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Has Amnesty International ever had any problem with the butchery of Al Qaida or Taliban?

  • JT says:

    Ever since September 12, 2001, I fully EXPECT the US to be aggressively going after terrorist groups. Financially, militarily, and politically. This includes places such as Yemen (site of attack on USS Cole), Somalia (site of known al Qaeda, warlords, and Blackhawk Down), Iran (US designated state sponsor of terror), and Afghanistan (official host of al Qaeda).
    If we were not, I would be very, very concerned.

  • Bill Baar says:

    So AI’s case is someone should go first and try and arrest these fellows. That fails, then the cruise missle is ok. So who does AI propose goes first, warrent in hand, a knocking on the door?

  • Render says:

    I have a message for Phillip Luther and Amnesty International.
    You “detain” them. You know who they are. You know what they are. You probably know where at least some of them are. You know there are rewards for them. Do call US federal law enforcement if you survive your attempt…

  • Tyler says:

    Count me among those who’d say cluster bombs are not the ideal counter-terrorist munition. In fact I’d rank it behind napalm. For precisely this reason, the high chance of civilian casualties and unintended blowback.
    Now if memory serves me correct there was talk that the December 14 strikes were in relation to an imminent threat against Western Embassies in Sanaa and was successful in that respect. In that context, yeah perhaps we didn’t have the time to prep a few Reaper drones or an AC-130 to hit these targets. A Tomahawk the only option.
    But still, not ideal. We shouldn’t be repeating mistakes in Yemen that we already learned not to make in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

  • Mr T says:

    Criminal activity = not our concern
    Pursuit of criminals = must be legal
    AI Result= we are only concerned about the US being a criminal, not anyone else being a criminal
    Final analysis= AI is a hate organization that hates America and wants to cause us harm. That makes them our enemy. Their motives are sullied and they therefore have no credibility. Perhaps some effort should be directed at destroying an enemy of ours like that.

  • Neo says:

    I call B.S. Philip Luther knows that any attempt to detain militants in Yemen would be characterized as extra judicial detainment, just like the Guantanamo Bay detainees. Short memory?

  • Zeissa says:

    Arnefufkin: Yes, Amnesty International does concern itself with non-white dictatators, even muslim and black ones. They simply get and invest more PR for these cases. I used to support them once against asian dictators with 100HKD a month, but I stopped when I found out the depth of their bias at times against American operations for one.

  • My2Cents says:

    I have not had any respect for Amnesty International for years, and this idiocy just confirms my opinions.

  • Paul says:

    2 words……SO WHAT

  • kp says:

    That’s quite a lot of civilians killed in a strike and pretty big weapons system to hit a soft area target (as opposed to a point target). One the other hand is a not trivial number (but smaller than the number of civilians) AQAP were killed including the senior leadership. I suspect that was the trade off in POTUS mind when authorizing this attack. One might keep this casualty level in mind for a senior leadership strike: 14 AQ including leaders of the org and 40ish civilians. For a big fish we are willing to kill those around him if it works out that way.

    It also shows the comments i made at the time (“The Yemeni’s have PGMs?”) were true: they don’t.

    I think it also makes clear that the US have made an effort to get more “appropriate” (pin-point) weapons systems in place over Yemen including the Reaper. I presume these are flying from Djibouti though the French may have an issue with combat drones hitting other countries (the problem with third party sites). This may also have been the reason from the SLCM attack rather than another attack. If that’s the case then we may have a carrier launched drone in service for the recent attack e.g. the “Beast of Kahndahr” drone appear to have a carrier capable landing gear which frees us from local basing restrictions.

    The other big question is what intelligence did the US use to get this mission OKed at the top? Yemeni HUMINT? For some reason that doesn’t seem to ring true given the wepons system. Given the potential number of non-combatant casualties it seems we would have other intel too. Perhaps we may not have had another capable system in the region though we’ve been in Djibouti since 2001 and flying Hellfire equipped Predators that have made attacks in the Yemen. Perhaps the intel was too imprecise for two Hellfires on target? CIA/NSA TECHINT and imagery? Seems more likely especially the size and lack of relative precision of the attack (“the HVTs will be in this camp on this night”). Whatever it was it must have been convincing to get POTUS to sign off on it. How much did the Yemni’s know? Did we twist their arm as they seemed to follow up at this time too with ground attacks?

    The recent attack also caused some probems i.e. hitting a “friendly” (at least to the Yemni government) local. Is that because we had middling intel? Again this seems to be more US intel driven than Yemeni (as if they knew the guy was talking to a local AQ leader then they would have told us … right?).

    This also goes back to some of the other things going on in AFPAK at the same time (hitting Somali/Yemeni AQ contacts in that area). Did we have some sort of intel connecting the two directly?

    As usual more questions than answers though two things are a bit more clear: we see a serious threat in Yemen and I don’t think the Yemni government are helping as much as they could.

  • BraddS says:

    Has Amnesty International ever had any problem with the butchery of Al Qaida or Taliban? Of course not, if they criticized them, they might get their own heads cut off! OTOH, they know they can criticize our government to their hearts content, and absolutely nothing will happent to them, except they will be republished throughout the world…

  • Neo says:

    Like many here, I had a good deal of respect for Amnesty 25 – 30 years ago. That respect had gradually eroded over the years as Amnesty became more extreme.
    What happened at Amnesty, happens with many political organizations and lobbying groups. Over time more zealous members push against the moderates and stamp out dissenting opinions within in the organization. The organization gradually moves to the extreme as people get pushed out, or quit. Debate becomes incestuous where no outside views are represented, and making sense to outsiders becomes less important than satisfying the true believers.

  • waltj says:

    And so U.S. involvement proves…what, exactly? That we’re at war with Al-Qaeda? About time, I’d say, since they’ve been at war with us since the mid-1990s. Oh, oh, that’s right. We killed civilians. Well, once AQ and its affiliates stop operations like 9/11, Madrid, London 7/7, Bali, and so on, then I’ll worry about it. Until then, not so much. And AI can go pound sand.

  • Rhyno327 says:

    If they are not gonna give them up, LETS GO GET THEM. The Yemeni gov can only do so much, but we have people there that can target these swine.

  • Larsen E. Whipsnade says:

    They ought to call themselves Amnesty USA, because they only appear to be concerned with our actions and not the killers and blatant violators of human rights of the international community.
    As some people have said since at least 1960, “Get the US out of the UN and get the UN out of the US.”
    Then begin to mop up AI, the ACLU and a few others who blame America first.

  • My2cents says:

    The reason you use drones and cruise missiles instead of an AC-130 is that they are unmanned.
    This is important to Yemen so that the government can claim that no US soldiers are fighting in Yemen. Shooting across the border is OK  

  • crusader says:

    i bet AQ hired AI to do a propaganda campaign against the u.s. for them, they charge 0 dollars for it!
    it always seems that third world civilians are more worth pitying than first world civilians. AQ targets only civilians so what is there to complain about? since AI is doing AQ a favor when will we see AQ hit AI? probably never. both are worldwide organizations.
    its a relief to know that so is the us military.
    lets see who is still standing when the smoke clears.

  • blert says:

    In the fog of war it’s tough to know what the facts were when the strike was authorized…
    But it sure smells like it had sanction from the Yemeni government, or at least a faction within the government.
    IIRC, the strike hit an area populated by tribes hostile to the government — and of which they are frantic.
    Further, these tribes are extremely hostile to KSA: they’re Shia.
    KSA is ALWAYS paranoid that these guys will team up with AQ and launch attacks against their oil economy. Why? Because the oil fields are in traditional Shiite lands that were captured in the 1920’s. The Shia are still there, of course.

  • JRP says:

    AI, ACLU, all organizations of that ilk, are defeatist groups that curry favor with our enemies as an insurance policy that pays off on the day when, they think, our enemies will have won. The Quislings in Norway, the Vichyites in France, the Bund in pre-WWII USA . . . that is their psychology. They lack the courage of their convictions, of course, and hide behind Freedom of Speech to cloak their true and, perhaps, even subconcious motive. I refuse to believe that they are simply naive like British PM Chamberlain was with Hitler.

  • waltj says:

    both are worldwide organizations.
    its a relief to know that so is the us military.
    lets see who is still standing when the smoke clears.

    🙂 I know where I’m putting my money, and it’s not on AQ. The AQ thugs are at their best when killing unarmed civilians. It’s a very different story when it comes to U.S. or other Western troops.

  • Zeissa says:

    They’re only civilians in Western terms.

  • Zeissa says:

    I agree with most of the sentiments expressed here, but a lot of you seem rather rabid in that you’re getting illogical.
    AI isn’t trying to do propaganda for AQ, except when not doing their job when threatened into shutting up by their footsoldiers. Neither are they defeatist as they’re not on America’s side in the first place. I will agree they are cultural traitors though.


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