Tag Archives: drone war Yemen

Buying Silence and Selling Weapons: Yemen

Saudi-led air strike on Sana'a, 12 June 2015

As Yemen’s formal economy collapses, a war economy has taken its place. For a fee, any truck can pass checkpoints without inspection, no matter what it carries. Weapons-smuggling is rife; particularly, says a diplomat, of Saudi-supplied arms. So cheap and plentiful are hand-grenades that Yemenis throw them to celebrate weddings. Sheikhs offer their tribesmen as fighters for neighbouring countries willing to pay for regional influence….

Outsiders have added greatly to the fragmentation of Yemen. Iran has long backed the Houthis with weapons, but ideas are just as lethal an export…Saudi Arabia countered by exporting its own Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Radical preachers, such as Muqbil al-Waddai, opened retreats in the desert, where at prayer-time trainees bowed down to Kalashnikovs laid in front of them. With Sunnis concentrated on the coast and in the east, and Shias predominating in the highlands of the north-west, their rival creeds prised the country apart.

Such are the animosities that Yemen, stitched together in 1990, is now disintegrating. The south seethes at the northern bullies who bombarded their roads and sniped at their citizens when they briefly conquered Aden in the early months of the war. The north decries the southern traitors who invited Saudi and Emirati forces to drop bombs on them and isolate them by land, air and sea after the outsiders joined the war in March 2015…

Reluctant to take risks, Saudi pilots fly high, out of range of anti-aircraft fire. That spares Saudi lives, but imprecise bombing increases Yemeni civilian casualties. The UN says over 7,000 Yemenis have been killed in the two years of war. Hospitals were attacked 18 times in 2016.

Hunger is also taking a toll. Yemen imports 90% of its food, so the warring parties control its supply as yet another weapon. Without electricity to keep it cool, much of what gets through perishes. Of some 27m Yemenis, 7m are going hungry, says the UN, almost double the figure in January. Some 3m people have fled their homes, but of Yemen’s neighbours, only Djibouti accepts refugees. Yemen, says the UN, is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia insists all this is a price worth paying for reinstating the president the Houthis chased out of the capital in 2015…Vowing to push Iran back, the new Saudi king’s impulsive son and defence minister, Muhammad bin Salman, saw a chance to prove his mettle.

But even if the diagnosis was accurate, the prince’s response has been fatally flawed. War has only exacerbated the manageable threat that Saudi Arabia faced at the start. No matter how often its loyal press report victorious advances, the front lines have in fact changed very little. But Saudi Arabia now looks more vulnerable and Iran looms larger than ever. The Houthis mount regular raids dozens of kilometres into Saudi Arabia, often unopposed. Missiles land as far north as Riyadh, most recently striking an airbase there on March 18th, and disable coalition naval vessels in the Red Sea. Scores of Saudi and UAE tanks have been struck. As always, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fill the copious ungoverned spaces, perhaps offering a refuge for fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria. As a war it predicted would quickly end enters its third year, Saudi Arabia seems without an exit strategy. “Yemen [is] in danger of fracturing beyond the point of no return,” said a recent UN report.

All permanent members of the UN Security Council are against the war, but they are all ready to sell Yemen for arms,” says an ex-UN official who worked on Yemen. By night Saudi Arabia launches American-made Reaper combat drones from an American base in Djibouti. In order to buy silence, King Salman promised China $65bn of investment on a visit this month….

Beggar thy neighbourYemen’s war enters its third bloody year, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

Who is Responsible for the Train Wreck of Yemen

Yemeni Protests April 4, 2011. Image from wikipedia

Secret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September 2014, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden…. President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere….

Houthi leaders in Sana took over the offices of Yemen’s National Security Bureau, which had worked closely with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.

The loss of the intelligence networks, in addition to the escalating conflict, contributed to the Obama administration’s decision to halt drone strikes in Yemen for two months, to vacate the U.S. Embassy in Sana last month and to evacuate U.S. special operations and intelligence teams from a Yemeni air base over the weekend.

The Houthis claimed on March 25, 2015 that they had captured that air base, Al Anad, as new fighting broke out in and around the southern seaport of Aden, the country’s financial hub, where Hadi had taken refuge. Over the weekend, the Houthis seized the central city of Taizz…..Foreign Minister Riad Yassin said Hadi was overseeing the city’s defense from an undisclosed safe location. The Associated Press reported that he had fled the country on a boat….

As the turmoil deepened, Yemen appeared to be descending into a civil war that could ignite a wider regional struggle.,,,Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Yemen to bolster the positions of the Yemeni government against the rapid advance of the Shiite militias,…Saudi Arabia reportedly moved troops, armored vehicles and artillery to secure its border with Yemen, which sits alongside key shipping routes.,,,,

The Houthis and their allies, backed by tanks and artillery, advanced Wednesday to within a few miles of Aden after battles north of the city, officials and witnesses said. Much of the rebels’ heavy weaponry was provided by Yemeni military units that remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was toppled in 2012 and is a bitter opponent of Hadi [who is supported by the US]…..

Four U.S. drone strikes have been reported in Yemen this year, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks the attacks. That compares with 23 in the first 10 months of 2014. The Houthi takeover of Sana forced a pause in the program. … [T}he Houthis may have captured a “significant portion” of the $500 million in military equipment that the U.S. has given Hadi’s government.The equipment approved included Huey II helicopters, Humvees, M-4 rifles, night-vision goggles, body armor and hand-launched Raven drones….

“It was a train wreck that anyone who knows anything about Yemen could see happening. It seems we put our head in the sand, and the train wreck has happened and now we are saying, ‘How did this happen?’” said Ali Soufan, a former senior FBI agent.

Excerpts from By BRIAN BENNETT AND ZAID AL-ALAYA, Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations, Associated Press

The Kill List and Drone Body Count

Just days after taking office, the president [Obamaa] got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.  In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.  “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Excerpt, JO BECKER and SCOTT SHANE, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, NY Times, May 29, 2012

The Drone War in Yemen

A surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command flew over southeastern Yemen on the evening of March 9, tracking a mid-level Al Qaeda commander as he drove to his mountain hideout.  American missiles soon rained down. The Al Qaeda commander was killed, along with 22 other suspected militants, most of them believed to be young recruits receiving military training, U.S. officials said.  The attack is an example of how the U.S. is escalating its largely secret campaign in Yemen, taking advantage of improved intelligence and of changes in Yemen’s leadership now that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has stepped down. The changes have allowed attacks against militants who until recently might have eluded U.S. attention, the officials say.  As the pace quickens and the targets expand, however, the distinction may be blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.  U.S. officials insist that they will not be drawn into a civil war and that they do not intend to put ground troops in Yemen other than trainers and small special operations units.  “We don’t want to become involved in the country’s internal battles,” an Obama administration official said. “We don’t want to turn every antigovernment fighter against the United States.”

The U.S. has focused its airstrikes in areas where militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the main insurgent group operating in Yemen, and their tribal allies have seized and held towns in the last year.  The stepped-up U.S. attacks appear aimed in part at preventing militants from consolidating control over the region — the southern Yemeni provinces of Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda. Those provinces have become the world’s largest haven for Al Qaeda in the years since the U.S. began drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, U.S. officials say.

Most militants fighting under the Al Qaeda banner in Yemen are local insurgents, U.S. officials say, along with Saudis bolstering the ranks and assuming leadership roles. Some of the militants are known to harbor ambitions of attacking the West: Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who made the underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in an attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, remains at large in Yemen, U.S. officials say.

The militants say they are fighting the governments in Sana and Riyadh as well as the United States. They have mounted lethal attacks on Yemeni government officials and civilians, including a March 5 battle that killed 100 Yemeni soldiers. An Al Qaeda affiliate claimed credit for a March 18 attack in which an American teacher was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding assailants.

The U.S. effort in Yemen was brought to a virtual standstill — a “lull,” Gen. James N. Mattis told Congress — by Saleh’s yearlong effort to cling to power. The U.S. did not want to be seen as backing a repressive ruler, and it also became dangerous for American personnel to be in the country. Since Saleh’s departure, the use of drones and manned warplanes to attack militants has expanded significantly.

An airstrike killed three fighters in the town of Jaar on March 11, then three days later an American missile hit a vehicle and killed four militants in Bayda. U.S. officials said both attacks were carried out either by the military’s U.S. Joint Special Operations Command or the CIA, each of which fly armed drones over Yemen.

The militants were targeted not because they were plotting attacks against the U.S. but because intelligence suggested they were planning attacks on American diplomats or other targets inside Yemen, the U.S officials said.

The CIA began flying drones over Yemen last year, joining a clandestine military program that was in operation. Some military drones fly from a base in Djibouti, and CIA drones are based at an undisclosed location in the Arabian Peninsula.

U.S. officials would not say exactly how many strikes have been carried out in Yemen, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between Yemeni military attacks and American actions. Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. counter-terrorism actions, estimates that 23 strikes have been carried out in Yemen since January 2009, far lower than the 245 drone strikes it counted in Pakistan during that period.  Since 2002, 160 militants and 47 civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen, the website found. That is a much higher rate of civilian deaths than independent experts have seen in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan.

Several officials said there are high-level discussions in Washington about ways to further expand the U.S. role. U.S. and Yemeni officials have been surprised and dismayed by how easily Al Qaeda militants have been able to seize and hold territory in parts of Yemen, and they are determined to reverse the gains, they say.  The militants in Yemen “are under pressure, but the fact that there are these areas where they can now operate with relative impunity is of deep concern,” a senior U.S. official said.  Yemen’s new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has proved more willing than his predecessor to approve U.S. airstrikes, one of the reasons for the recent surge in attacks, American and Yemeni officials said.

Last week, Yemen’s army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali Ashwal, was in Washington for talks with Pentagon officials. The U.S. is pushing Yemen to reorganize its military so that it is better positioned to retake the towns now held by Al Qaeda, an effort that will require tanks and other heavy weapons, U.S. officials said.  Washington is pressing Hadi to get rid of several of Saleh’s relatives who remain in key military and security posts and to mount a serious military campaign to retake territory in the south. The commander in charge of the southern region was replaced after the recent military setbacks.  Hadi “has shown the will and ability to make the changes…. It’s a matter of getting the right focus and the right plan and someone to lead it,” the senior Defense official said.

Heavily armed American soldiers have begun appearing in large numbers at the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, Sana, a Yemeni official said.Obama administration officials insist that the rules for targeting Al Qaeda militants in Yemen have not changed.  In an example of the limits, U.S. forces in Yemen have not used so-called signature strikes that have been employed in Pakistan — in which the CIA has used drones to kill fighters on the basis of observed activities that suggested they were insurgents. Targeting in Yemen is based on intelligence about particular people, not “pattern of life” analysis, they say.  Some Obama administration officials and members of Congress favor signature strikes in Yemen, but Obama has resisted, officials say. One reason for concern about the U.S. strikes is that the intelligence hasn’t always been good enough for U.S. commanders to be sure what their missiles were aimed at, officials said.

In March 2010, a strike killed the deputy governor of Marib as he sat for negotiations with an Al Qaeda leader. Afterward, U.S. officials “said we’re not doing drones because we don’t have the intelligence structure to be able to do it well,” said Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.  When the drone strikes resumed, the vetting was rigorous, officials say. Even so, the new, more aggressive approach troubles some critics, who argue that U.S. military strikes have done more harm than good.  “The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda seems to get,” said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University in Maryland.  Some analysts argue the American military effort has provoked widespread anger among Yemenis.

“Drones are a weapon of terror in many ways, and the kind of hostility this is going to breed may not be worth the counter-terrorism gains,” Bodine said.

Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, In Yemen, lines blur as U.S. steps up airstrikes,Los Angeles Times, Aprl. 2, 2012