On March 5, 13-year-old Amer Ali al-Saqra Huraidan and his cousin were on their way home from visiting relatives in al-Hudhi, a small town in the eastern Yemeni province of Hadramout. As they drove along a desert highway around 4 p.m. local time, a U.S. drone circled overhead. Somewhere thousands of miles away, the drone operator launched a strike.
A short time later, Amer’s cousin Hasan awoke to fire and smoke rising from the mangled pickup truck and heard the buzz of the drone overhead. He had wounds on his right hand, leg, and head; chunks of shrapnel would later be removed from his body. But Amer was barely recognizable. The strike had charred his body and torn it to pieces, killing him instantly.
In a phone interview with The Intercept, Hasan, 19, said first responders were reluctant to come to the scene because they were concerned about a possible second strike by the drone that still hovered overhead. He and his family have been left wondering how the U.S. military mistook a fifth grader for a militant.
“He was too young to join [any militant groups],” said Hasan. Amer Saleh Huraidan, the younger Amer’s uncle, told The Intercept: “There’s no link with Al Qaeda whatsoever.”
The strike that killed Amer was the first of three attacks near al-Hudhi in the span of a week. Seven other people were killed in strikes on March 7 and March 9, according to members of the al-Mahashima tribe to which all of the dead belonged. Independent sources on the ground in Yemen, as well as the international rights group Reprieve, confirmed the tribe members’ accounts. The victims, they noted, were poor people displaced from al-Jawf province, their lives upended by fighting that has raged on since 2014. None of them were affiliated with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, the sources said.
Two days after Amer was killed, a man named Saleh al-Wuhair stood on top of a hill in al-Hudhi, looking for cell service to make a call. At around 5 p.m., a missile came flying down and killed him, according to a member of his family and independent observers in Yemen.
Because the area was targeted twice in two days, tribe members drove out to al-Hudhi to urge residents to relocate to a safer place. On March 9, a half-dozen members of the tribe — three of them the adult children of Abdullah al-Qibli al-Wuhair, a local tribal leader, and three of them his adult grandchildren — were driving back to Marib when a drone targeted an area called al-Abr at around 5 p.m. All six of them were killed.
“All the victims were of displaced families who had nothing to do with terrorism and are living under difficult conditions in tents,” said Baraa Shiban, a Reprieve caseworker who tweeted about Amer’s killing the day after it happened.
“U.S. Central Command has conducted six strikes against AQAP in Yemen this month, all in Hadramout governorate, in coordination with the government of Yemen,” CENTCOM spokesperson Earl Brown said in response to questions from The Intercept. (When reports of Amer’s death first surfaced in Yemen, he was said to have been killed in Marib, but it later became clear that the strike took place in Hadramout, as he was returning to Marib.)
Brown did not respond to questions about the details of the strikes, including the victims and the dates. Asked to comment specifically on Amer’s death, he said, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We take these allegations seriously and are looking into the matter.”
The Saudi-led war against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen entered its fourth year on Monday. In September 2014, the Houthis seized control of the capital city, Sanaa, pushing out President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Six months later, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the U.S. launched a military campaign to restore Hadi to power. The coalition has bombed civilian centers, sparked a cholera outbreak, and pushed millions of people to the edge of famine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. drone war in Yemen — which is meant to target AQAP and has gone on for almost a decade — has largely faded into the background. And like other elements of America’s so-called war on terror, it has claimed hundreds of civilian lives.
The United States launched a single drone strike in Yemen in November 2002, then no more until 2009, when the campaign started up again. As of January of this year, it had conducted at least 302 airstrikes in the country, 129 of which took place in 2017, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent group that monitors U.S. drone wars. The bureau estimates that American drone strikes have killed between 166 and 210 Yemeni civilians since 2002.
In a March 12 report to Congress, the Trump administration noted that, in addition to ongoing strikes against AQAP, U.S. forces conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets in Yemen for the first time last October.
The Pentagon says the legal authority for the strikes in Yemen stems from the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF. That law, relied on by three successive administrations, gives the military the right to go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and those connected to them. Critics note that the AUMF has been stretched past its breaking point and is now being used to legitimize attacks against groups like ISIS that did not exist in 2001.
The 2001 AUMF “authorized a different war against a different adversary,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Multiple civilians have been killed with virtually no acknowledgement or reparation, and more are likely to die under the Trump administration’s new secret killing rules, which loosen important safeguards against civilian harm.” Shamsi was referring to the Trump administration’s reported decision last fall to change the criteria for when the CIA or military could attack suspected terrorists.
“In so many ways, our government is adding to the devastation and suffering of the Yemeni people,” she said.
In its report to Congress earlier this month, the Trump administration concealed from public view the details surrounding its reliance on the 2001 AUMF for deadly strikes in Yemen. Under a section titled “The Domestic Law Bases for the Ongoing Use of U.S. Military Force,” the administration referred representatives to a classified annex for more information on the application of the 2001 AUMF to “particular groups and individuals.”
“It is remarkable and dangerous, in a democracy, for the government to hide from its own people the adversaries with which it claims to be at war and the rules it applies in killing people,” Shamsi said.
Many of the victims killed by drone strikes in Yemen since President Donald Trump took office have been either civilians or non-AQAP militants active in the anti-Houthi fight, said a senior Yemeni intelligence official in al-Jawf who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The intelligence official, who is affiliated with the Hadi government, said that U.S. strikes should be coordinated with the Yemeni government. Though CENTCOM said the March strikes were in fact executed in coordination with the Yemeni government, some observers doubt that is always, or ever, the case.
The drone strikes are “happening because of [the Hadi government’s] weakness. There should be a rule of law and a ban on any interference, whether it’s by a neighbor or a foreign state,” the intelligence official said, referring to both the United States and the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen’s Human Rights Minister Mohamed Askar also expressed outrage over the strikes. “I condemn the extrajudicial killings that took place,” he posted on Twitter. “These practices won’t serve a war on terrorism as much as they contribute to its spread.”
These critiques from Yemeni officials bring to light the tense relationship between the weak Hadi government and U.S. counterterrorism officials. After a U.S. commando raid in Yemen in January 2017 that killed at least a dozen civilians, including women and children, Muhsin Khasroof, a Yemeni Defense Ministry official, said the Hadi government did not have prior knowledge of the attack. The Yemeni government conveyed its dissatisfaction to the United States. “We said that in the future, there needs to be more coordination with Yemeni authorities before any operation and that there needs to be consideration for our sovereignty,” Ahmed bin Mubarak, the Yemeni ambassador in Washington, told the Wall Street Journal last year.
But Abdurrazaq al-Jamal, a Yemeni journalist, said he believes drone strikes are killing more civilians now than before. (Outside monitors like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have little data on many recent strikes, making it likely that civilian casualties have gone unreported.) “There is what looks like an American intelligence blindness,” al-Jamal said. “It is clear that the United States is already struggling to reach targets within [AQAP].”
That may be partly because AQAP and ISIS have joined the fight against the Houthis, in some cases fighting alongside coalition-backed forces. “The fight against the Houthis has helped AQAP deepen [ties to provinces targeted by American counterterrorism efforts] and grow even stronger,” Just Security reported last year. “The terrorist group has seized the civil war as a political opportunity and thrived.”
Though AQAP has a significant presence across Yemen, including in al-Baydha, Taiz, and Aden, its presence and activity have been significantly curbed in al-Jawf and Marib. A Marib-based activist, who declined to be named because of the dangers of speaking publicly about AQAP, said the group has kept a low profile in the province since late 2014, with the exception of a few small attacks. AQAP’s recruitment pitch in the area is no longer relevant, the observer said, because the tribes there are now united against a common enemy: the Houthis.
The story of Hasan, the 19-year-old hurt in the strike that killed his cousin Amer, exemplifies the complex threads of the fighting in Yemen.
Hasan is a soldier in a military unit associated with Hadi, fighting the Houthi rebels. In fact, when the drone struck, he says he had just returned from a deployment in al-Yatama, one of the frontlines in al-Jawf province. In other words, since 2015, he has in some sense been fighting on the same side as the U.S., yet he was nearly killed by his purported allies.
Local sources were adamant that neither Hasan, Amer, nor any of the other seven victims of the strikes this month were AQAP or ISIS.
A local activist who is from al-Jawf and has sources close to AQAP said that Amer had no links to Al Qaeda (like most people interviewed for this story, the activist declined to be named because talking about militants’ activities might endanger him). A tribe member and a local reporter confirmed the activist’s account regarding Amer and said none of the victims of the subsequent drone strikes had ties to terrorist groups. Amer Saleh Huraidan, the uncle of 13-year-old Amer, said that he had known the victims of the March 9 drone strike as well, and that they were not members of militant groups like AQAP, though four of them had been fighting alongside military units aligned with the Saudi-U.S. coalition.
The activist said that a few members of the al-Mahashima tribe belong to AQAP, but those who were killed were not among them. Hasan, the survivor, “may have met some members of Al Qaeda,” the activist said, but he was not himself a member. (The Yemeni intelligence official told The Intercept that the al-Mahashima members who reportedly belonged to AQAP were killed long ago. For example, the uncle of al-Wuhair, the man killed by a drone this month while searching for a cellphone signal, was an AQAP leader who was killed in a drone strike about five years ago, according to one of al-Wuhair’s relatives.) Amer’s father, the activist noted, was a leader in Islah, Yemen’s Islamist party that has taken a lead role in fighting the Houthi rebels alongside coalition forces. He was killed in battle against the Houthis in 2014.
Amer is survived by five brothers and sisters. Along with the rest of his family, they have been displaced by the conflict and now live in a tent near an oil field in Marib province — the home that Amer was returning to the day he was killed.
Amer’s uncle, who is a shepherd, told The Intercept by phone that he wants those responsible for what he called “this criminal attack” to be held accountable and asked for compensation for the victims. “We condemn criminal acts from any party, be it from Muslims or non-Muslims. If you take a look at their status in tents,” he added, referring to displaced families like his own, “they need relief — electricity, water, food — and not bombing.”