Four years ago, five cousins — all civilians — were driving near the Yemeni village of Al Uqla when a missile ripped through their SUV and tossed the car into the air. Three of them were killed instantly. Another died days later in a local hospital. The only survivor, Adel Al Manthari, may soon become the fifth fatality of that U.S. drone strike.
Al Manthari’s feet and legs have recently blackened due to restricted blood flow, and this week a doctor told him he’s at imminent risk of developing gangrene. Al Manthari needs emergency medical care that he can’t afford. His future now rests with a GoFundMe campaign.
That the limbs — and possibly life — of a civilian drone strike victim now depend on donations to a fundraising website is due to what experts said is an inadequate, arbitrary, and broken civilian casualty investigation and compensation system that has failed victims of U.S. wars for decades.
Despite a top Pentagon spokesperson’s recent claim that the military now embraces accountability regarding civilian casualty allegations, the Department of Defense failed to provide basic information about the 2018 attack and refuses to even acknowledge pleas for assistance or compensation made on Al Manthari’s behalf, much less dip into millions of dollars in funds allocated by Congress for compensation in such cases.
“It was the U.S.’s Hellfire missile that cost Adel his family and his health. It should be the U.S. that pays for the treatment to save his legs.”
“Congress cut DoD a check for millions to pay for exactly this type of scenario,” said Jennifer Gibson, a human rights lawyer and project lead on extrajudicial killing at Reprieve, an international human rights organization representing Al Manthari. “DoD’s refusal to spend even a penny of it — on Adel or any of the thousands of civilians harmed by U.S. drones — sends the message that they simply don’t care about accountability.”
In cases like Al Manthari’s, experts said that compensation is hampered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s resistance to reassessing past allegations of civilian harm.
“It was the U.S.’s Hellfire missile that cost Adel his family and his health,” Gibson said. “It should be the U.S. that pays for the treatment to save his legs. That’s what responsible governments do. They own up to their mistakes.”
The March 29, 2018, drone strike left Al Manthari, then a civil servant in the Yemeni government, with severe burns to the left side of his body, a fractured hip, and serious damage to the tendons, nerves, and blood vessels in his left hand. The injuries left him unable to walk or work, plunged him into debt for medical treatment, and caused his daughters — aged 8 and 14 at the time of the strike — to drop out of school to care for him.
A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press and a meticulously documented 2021 report by the Yemen-based group Mwatana for Human Rights determined that the victims of the 2018 strike were civilians not, as the Pentagon claimed, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “terrorists.” In March, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked the Pentagon to open a new investigation of the airstrike that disabled Al Manthari, as well as 11 other U.S. attacks in Yemen.
If Al Manthari’s story sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. From Libya to Somalia, Syria to Yemen, the U.S. military regularly undercounts civilian casualties, according to victims’ family members, investigative journalists, and humanitarian groups that independently investigate claims. For years, exposés by journalists and NGOs have been necessary to push the Department of Defense to reinvestigate attacks and, in limited instances, acknowledge killing civilians.
Last year, for example, a New York Times investigation forced the Pentagon to admit that a “righteous strike” against a terrorist target in Afghanistan actually killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. Times reporting also exposed a 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed up to 64 noncombatants and was obscured through a multilayered coverup. And a blockbuster investigation of U.S.-led airstrikes, combining shoe-leather journalism and U.S. military documents, revealed that the air war in Iraq and Syria was marked by flawed intelligence and inaccurate targeting, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocents.
After the Times reporting recently won a Pulitzer Prize, the Defense Department offered praise and a rare admission. “We know that we had more work to do to better prevent civilian harm. And we’re doing that work,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “We knew that we had made mistakes, we’re trying to learn from those mistakes. And we knew that we weren’t always as transparent about those mistakes as we should be.”
While Kirby was touting a sea change at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Anna Williams, the senior adviser for civilian protection; and Cara Negrette, the director for international humanitarian policy, had for almost a month ignored a letter asking that department to reopen the civilian casualty assessment of the March 29, 2018, strike. The letter, sent on Al Manthari’s behalf by Reprieve, asked the Pentagon to provide Al Manthari with emergency medical evacuation and funds to obtain lifesaving treatment. To this day, no one has even acknowledged — much less responded to — the request.
“If the Pentagon is truly committed to changing the culture of secrecy and impunity that has surrounded the U.S. drone program for the last decade, then responding to Adel’s complaint would be a start.”
“It’s hard to take Mr. Kirby’s words at face value when the DoD continues to systematically evade accountability for the lives ended and wrecked by U.S. drone strikes,” said Reprieve’s Gibson. “If the Pentagon is truly committed to changing the culture of secrecy and impunity that has surrounded the U.S. drone program for the last decade, then responding to Adel’s complaint would be a start. Letting it sit on someone’s desk gathering dust while a man loses his legs screams business as usual.”
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for an interview with Kirby. Williams and Negrette both referred The Intercept to Pentagon public affairs, which promptly declined a request to interview either of them. When asked about Al Manthari’s case, a U.S. military spokesperson replied: “We have no updates.” In response to requests for basic information about the 2018 strike, Lt. Col. Karen Roxberry recommended filing a Freedom of Information Act request — a process that can take months or years to yield documents, if they are ever made available at all.
Earlier this week, after the Pulitzer announcement, Austin expressed a “commitment to transparency and accountability” in terms of civilian casualty incidents and declared that “efforts to mitigate and respond to civilian harm resulting from U.S. military operations are a direct reflection of U.S. values.” The memo followed a January memo directing subordinates to draw up a yet-to-be-released “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan,” including a review of how the Pentagon “responds to civilian harm, including, but not limited to, condolence payments and the public acknowledgment of harm.”
For decades, the U.S. has relied upon an arbitrary and degrading system of solatia: condolence payments made ex gratia, meaning they are provided as an expression of sympathy rather than an admission of fault for civilians slain or injured during U.S. military operations.
During the Vietnam War, the going rate for an adult killed was $33. Children merited just half that. Payouts in Afghanistan ranged from as little as $124 to $15,000 for one civilian life. Despite a dedicated annual Department of Defense fund of $3 million for payments for deaths, injuries, or damages resulting from U.S. or allied military actions, payments are an increasing rarity. The Pentagon’s most recent report on civilian casualties, released last June, noted that the Defense Department “did not offer or make any such ex gratia payments during 2020.”
“The United States has repeatedly failed to acknowledge and make amends for civilian harm,” Annie Shiel, the senior adviser for U.S. policy and advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told The Intercept. “There are so many civilians like Adel Al Manthari and his family who are grieving the loss of loved ones, dealing with injuries and trauma, or struggling to survive after losing their homes and livelihoods — all while waiting for some kind of acknowledgement or response from the U.S. government that often never comes.”
Even if the United States had an effective system for providing reparations to victims of U.S. attacks, Austin has recently been vocal about not reevaluating past civilian casualty claims. Last month, when Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., asked whether the Pentagon was planning to revisit past civilian harm allegations, Austin replied, “At this point we don’t have an intent to re-litigate cases.” That may prove to be a death sentence for Adel Al Manthari.
At his May 10 press briefing, Kirby said that “at its very best,” the press “holds us to account.” At every turn, however, the Pentagon has concealed information and obstructed reporting efforts concerning Al Manthari’s case.
“The watchwords of the U.S. drone program,” said Gibson, “have consistently been ‘no accountability, no apology, no compensation,’ and a radical rethink is needed.”
Until then, victims like Al Manthari will need to rely on fundraising websites and the kindness of strangers to stay alive, as the Pentagon boasts about accountability while trafficking in secrecy and impunity.