US drone strike kills civilians in central Yemen

The US launched its second drone strike in Yemen this week, killing several civilians in an attack on a wedding convoy that is thought to have included members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Today’s strike took place near the city of Rada’a in the central province of Baydah, The Associated Press reported. Yemeni military and intelligence officials said the drones hit a group of vehicles transporting members of a wedding party, but one Yemeni security official said al Qaeda members were thought to have been traveling with the convoy.

Fifteen people were killed and five more were wounded, according to Reuters. The initial press accounts indicate that all of those killed were civilians.

The US has mistakenly killed civilians in drone strikes in the past. On Sept. 2, 2012, the US killed 13 civilians in a strike in Rada’a, according to Yemeni tribesmen. The exact target of that strike is not known. Seventeen civilians are reported to have been killed in Yemen in 2013, and an additional 25 were killed in 2012, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. Two hundred and ninety jihadists are reported to have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen in 2012 and 2013.

Rada’a was an AQAP stronghold in early 2012, when a senior AQAP leader known as Tariq al Dhahab took control of the town, raised al Qaeda’s flag, and swore allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. Tariq was later killed by a brother who is opposed to al Qaeda.

Another brother, known as Kaid al Dhahab, took over to serve as AQAP’s emir in the province of Baydah. The US killed Kaid in a drone strike in Baydah on Aug. 30.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

Today’s strike is the second in four days, and the second in Yemen since AQAP penetrated security at Yemen’s Ministry of Defense in Sana’a. The suicide assault resulted in the deaths of 52 people, including foreign doctors and nurses, and 11 AQAP fighters. AQAP claimed that the assault targeted the US-run “operation rooms” for the drone program in Yemen.

The US has launched 25 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. Despite an uptick of activity at the end of July and into the second week of August, the pace of the strikes has decreased since last year. In 2012, the US launched 41 drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia. The previous year, the US launched 10 drone and air strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

Between July 27 and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen, but no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The spike in attacks from the end of July to mid-August was related to an al Qaeda plot that was uncovered by US officials. The plot’s discovery led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The plot involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.

Although six senior AQAP operatives, including the group’s deputy emir, Said al Shihri, were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012, the group’s top leadership cadre remains intact. In July, AQAP confirmed that al Shihri, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed; he is thought to have died or been seriously wounded in a strike in October 2012.

The US has targeted not only senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, but also low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government. This trend was first identified by The Long War Journal in the spring of 2012 [see LWJ report, US drone strike kills 8 AQAP fighters, from May 10, 2012]. Obama administration officials have claimed, however, that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP’s local insurgency against the Yemeni government.

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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  • Jeff Edelman says:

    This is the unfortunate part of a guerilla war. You can’t always tell the civilians from the guerilla. So many of these civilians mindlessly believe in the cause. And, if you felt like you would go to paradise for martyring yourself, Why not? They can look like civilians, but they are not. The guerilla gleefully, willfullly and readily uses these “civilians” for intel and for cover. He doesn’t really care about them. Tomorrow, he may blow them up at a bazaar via a homicide bomber. Or, the civilian may trip an IED planted by him. Sometimes the old saying is true that if you sleep with the dog, you may not wake up (with or without the fleas).

  • Eric Schuck says:

    Great breakdown Jeff. Its the civilians fault for “sleeping with the dog.” An intelligence failure occurs, and you try to mitigate the mistake with nonsense. Its this lack of responsiblity that we’ve been engaging in for 60 years thats caused the blowback happening time and time again.
    There is certainly collateral damage, people blown up in “bazaars” (apparently it’s still the 19th century), but you’re perpetuating this narrative of the “gleeful” terrorist who kills anyone in his path because he “hates freedom.” This is a war of attrition, and these cells have all the fuel and hatred they’ll ever need. Its in the form of intelligence failures, dead wedding convoys, women and children blown appart by missiles marked “made in the USA.” Its not a difficult sell. And US strategy only works when you have dictators in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (until recently), etc., who allow these operations to continue, despite their own populations overwhelming opposition. These incidents only put more pressure on the Yemeni government. You’ve seen the same happen with our “ally” in Pakistan.

  • Inse Mala says:

    Civilians causalities are unacceptable in precision targeting. I’m for taking out the Mehsuds, Awlakis, and Haqqanis with such strikes, but these so-called signature strikes are inherently flawed in their methodology. Simply put, they are profiling, and profiling is rife with inaccuracies. We need to know that the Hellfire being delivered in our name are being solely used to take out terrorists that we can identify beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even one civilian casualty is too much, as our military should be better than that. This is propaganda fodder for the jihadis and is indefensible to casual observers. I am a proponent of the drone program, but frankly this disgusts me…

  • Ralf Schmitz says:

    “The US has mistakenly killed civilians…”
    I´m tired of reading such stories… it´s called war because people die and not because they´re living in peace. I´m absolutely against making war, but I´m also true to my self about war. And that´s why I´m not starting to yell when I hear that civilians died again.
    This is reality an we´re all “just” human beings, all making mistakes. An this was one more mistake made during war. An we should stop discussing such things again and again and open our eyes. In war people are diing. If we don´t want them to die, we should stop war.
    Sry for my bad english.
    Greetings from Poland


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