US drone strike accidentally kills civilian in eastern Yemen

The US accidentally killed a civilian in the second drone strike that targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the eastern Yemeni province of Hadramout so far this year.

The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers killed a farmer in the village of Houta near Shibam, according to Reuters. “Witnesses said the farmer was killed by shrapnel from two rockets fired by the drone early in the morning as he walked home in the village,” the wire service reported.

The identity of the AQAP operative or operatives targeted in today’s strike was not disclosed. AQAP is known to operate openly in Hadramout province.

Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. AQAP has regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to government forces starting in late spring 2012. In May 2013, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in the Ghayl Bawazir area.

AQAP has launched a series of assassinations and complex attacks against Yemeni security forces in the province. In September 2013, a platoon-sized AQAP assault team stormed a base run by the Interior Ministry’s paramilitary Central Security Organization in the city of Mukallah, the capital of Hadramout province. Several soldiers were killed and the base was held by AQAP for days before it was retaken by commandos.

US strikes in Hadramout increase

In 2012, the US stepped up drone strikes against AQAP in Hadramout. Prior to May 2012, there were zero US drone strikes in the province. From mid-May until the end of 2012, the US launched seven attacks in Hadramout. Seven of the 41 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, or 17%, took place in the province. In 2013, six of the 26 strikes in Yemen, or 23%, occurred in Hadramout. Both of the drone strikes recorded in Yemen this year have taken place in the eastern province.

Five of the past six drone strikes have been executed in Hadramout. Two of the strikes were carried out in Al Qutn; two more occurred in Shibham; and other hit a target in Ghayl Bawazir.

Today’s strike is the third recorded in Yemen since Dec. 12, when US drones accidentally killed 15 civilians as they traveled in a wedding party in Rada’a in the central province of Al Baydah. Yemeni officials said that the strike targeted Shawqi Ali Ahmad al Badani, a wanted midlevel AQAP commander. Al Badani is said to be linked to the al Qaeda plot that resulted in the shuttering of US embassies and diplomatic facilities worldwide. US officials claimed that no civilians died in the strike, and that between nine and 12 AQAP fighters were killed. The US has opened an investigation into the claims that civilians were killed in the Dec. 12 strike.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

Today’s strike is the fifth in Yemen since Dec. 6, when AQAP penetrated security in a major attack 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 pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013 versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The plot 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.

Between July 27, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt the plot and take out AQAP’s top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir for Al Baydah province, during that time period.

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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  • Evan says:

    Innocent farmer huh? Prove it.
    The media and HRW, AI, etc… want all of us to believe that the drones are being piloted by drunken morons with very itchy trigger fingers that viciously slaughter innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I explicitly call B.S.
    The truth is that not one of these so called “civilians,” or farmers or whatever is innocent, every one of them is complicit in the things that are happening around them, how could they not be?
    AQ, and jihadis in general are known to travel and reside with their families, more accurately, they knowingly use their families as human shields, they do the same in villages and towns in the provinces that they occupy. They hide weapons and ammo in “civilian,” houses, they hide their combatants in mosques, and hospitals.
    As for the “farmer,” who was just ” walking home,” what kind of farmer is going home early in the morning? What, was he out tending his crops at night? Unlikely.
    The point is that all of people know what’s going on in their neck of the woods. They know. They know where the weapons are being stashed, they know who’s who, and who’s doing what. So here’s a simple and easy solution to this problem of “civilians,” being killed. LEAVE!!!
    If you don’t want to die, or you don’t want your family to die in a missile strike, stay away from terrorists. Don’t let them in your village, don’t house or feed them, stay the hell away from them. Otherwise I have absolutely 0 sympathy for any of these people.

  • Chris says:

    The US drone machine..(mil or cia) is doing a BAngUp job waxing civi’s! Well we know nSA must be helping.

  • YankeeZulu says:

    You wanna make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs.

  • Bob says:

    On more than one occasion, I recall the initial assessment was an “innocent” (fill in the blank) was killed, only to come a few days later (on the back page of every news paper I might add) that the person was so-and-so high level operative. I’m reserving judgement before I believe this. Most of the media is generally wrong on drone strikes, only reports when”innocents” are killed, and never loudly corrects a mistake when it turns out the “innocent” was, in fact, from from it.

  • David says:

    The debate isn’t over drones. Drones are another tool used for killing in this case. The issue is the killing of citizens during warfare. Killing of an unarmed person. Why not use snipers? There is no court ruling before they are killed. The media continues to report on unarmed civilians being blown up by car bombs and what not. In the US you can commit countless crimes and if you pose no threat you will be arrested. Can an unarmed person pose a threat by his mere presence? Can an unarmed peacefully acting person be put down justifiably?


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