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The Yemeni Man Suing BT for America's Deadly Drone Attacks

Mohammed al-Qawli lost two relatives; he now wants to hold BT to account for their alleged role in the killings.

The wrecked Toyota pick-up truck, in which Ali, Salim and their two passengers died. (Photo by Abdelwahid al-Qawli) 

British Telecoms (BT) have been providing communications infrastructure vital to America’s targeted killing programme in Yemen. Human rights charity Reprieve claim that providing the technology that allows the US military to launch drone attacks is a breach of their obligations as a multinational company, and one of Reprieve's clients, Mohammed al-Qawli – whose brother and cousin both died in a US drone strike in Yemen – is seeking to hold those responsible to account.

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A deep boom rocked through Sana’a – the sound coming from outside of the city, perhaps from near the village of al-Masna'a.

Mohammed al-Qawli, who works at Yemen’s Ministry of Education, was at home with some of his colleagues. Checking in on what exactly had happened, he phoned someone he knew who lived in the village. The man on the other end of the phone read out the number plate of a car that had been hit; it belonged to Mohammed’s family. Putting down the phone, he immediately made the 20-minute drive out to the bomb site.

Mohammed’s cousin, 20-year-old university student Salim al-Qawli, ran an informal taxi service to supplement his family's income; a common practice if you happen to own a vehicle in Yemen. He was approached by two men who wanted to be driven out of the village and – understandably, given it was his job – agreed. Ali al-Qawli, Salim’s relative and a local primary school teacher, went along for the ride.

Ali al-Qawli, who was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen on the 23rd January, 2013.

While driving towards their destination, they were stopped at a military checkpoint. Then, just before 9PM, a Hellfire missile tore its way through the sky and struck the vehicle. Everyone in the car died instantly.

Usually with footage of drone strikes, a target sits in the centre of a screen, a white flash erupts and, once it fades, nothing is left behind. The process is quick and clean. But this isn’t what it’s like on the ground. With the car still on fire, local villagers had gathered around the remains of the pick-up truck. “The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming,” Mohammed says. “The bodies were in pieces.”

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Four bodies were “burned right through”, according to a criminal investigations officer who arrived at the site shortly after the strike. “We had to go to a nearby village to get water to put the fire out,” Mohammed said, telling me he spent the next several hours trying to collect his relatives’ body parts. “The memory remains etched in my mind and haunts me to this day.”

Mohammed al-Qawli

Mohammed's story isn't unique. His brother Ali and cousin Salim were victims of the US targeted killing programme, which may have killed up to 993 people in Yemen – including 132 confirmed as civilians and 17 children – according to the latest figures from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

January, when Mohammed’s family members were killed, was a particularly bloody period in Yemen’s recent history. “January […] saw a heavy concentration of strikes,” Jack Serle from TBIJ told me. “In recent months and years we've seen strikes come in waves in Yemen – a period of intense bombardment then a halt.” This includes the recent round of violence over the 2014 Easter weekend, when 40 Yemenis were killed.

Serle told me that Yemeni government sources initially claimed that as many as seven had died in the attack that killed Ali and Salim, all of them allegedly “al-Qaeda militants”.

However, after a Yemeni government investigation, both Salim and Ali were exonerated of all links to the men who rented their taxi. According to a translated version of the government document, provided to me by Reprieve, “As well as the car's owner, Muhsen Mohammad Jamil, [Salim and Ali] have no knowledge [sic] or connection to the people who rented the abovementioned car.”

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The letter did not address the affiliations of the two men who were picked up in the taxi.

There are “problems with what unnamed officials say when cited in the media”, said Serle. Reports are frequently inaccurate, with accounts being changed at a later date. The letter dealing with Salim and Ali, however, is signed by named officials.

So what has BT, a seemingly innocuous communications company with irritating TV ads, got to do with drone strikes 3,500 miles away in Yemen?

The "Thunder Dome" at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo via)

In 2012, BT won a contract to build communications infrastructure between RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire and Camp Lemonnier in Djbouti, east Africa, where many of the drones flying over Yemen are based.

“As such, it is a partner in these crimes, whether directly or indirectly,” said Mohammed. “We're bringing a case against BT because we feel that, in the UK, there are people who care about human rights and protecting innocent lives.” It is hoped that, with enough pressure, BT will stop providing its services for the US drone programme.

Back in July of 2013, Reprieve filed a complaint against the National Contact Point (NCP) – a part of the UK government that ensures companies are abiding by the rules – about BT's contract with the US military, claiming that the company was breaching OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

These guidelines urge companies to respect the human rights of those affected by their products and services, be that by their own direct actions or by those of their clients. Additionally, if any sort of human rights violations do happen – such as the killing of civilians with Hellfire missiles – the guidelines insist that companies work to resolve such situations. Reprieve feel that BT has done neither of these things, firstly by providing vital infrastructure to the legally contentious US targeted killing programme, and secondly by not taking any steps to ensure that human rights aren’t affected by their products.

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Fragments of the Hellfire missile used in the drone strike that killed Ali and Salim.

In October of 2013, Reprieve raised concerns that not enough information about the specifics of BT's contract was being shared. These details – such as exactly what the fibre-optic cables are used for – would be crucial for any meaningful decision to be made by the NCP, but no further information was provided by BT.

Then, in January of 2014, the NCP said it was under no obligation to “conduct research or interrogate” BT. Finally, in February, a decision was made and the complaint against BT was dismissed.

This brings us up to today, with Reprieve challenging the NCP's verdict. Reprieve feel, in essence, that although the NCP is the public body that’s supposed to regulate and keep corporations like BT in check, the company's claims were taken at face value. According to Reprieve's letter, “the NCP failed to query BT in detail or at all about its efforts to comply with the guidelines”. That is, find out how their services may be impacting human rights and take steps to address that.

I reached out to BT to see how they felt about the decision. A spokesperson told me that “BT welcomes the fact that UK NCP has assessed Reprieve’s complaint and rejected it. BT can categorically state that the communications system mentioned in Reprieve’s complaint is a general purpose fibre-optic system. It has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes. BT has no knowledge of the reported US drone strikes and has no involvement in any such activity.”

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First of all, it’s hard to believe that no one at BT – a company that provides people with this kind of information via their broadband service – has heard about the US’ drone programme. When I last spoke to them in July of 2013, they claimed that the programme was merely “rumour and speculation”, a bizarre stance considering it’s been covered pretty extensively by respected mainstream media, particularly the strike that hit a wedding convoy at the end of last year.

Secondly, the position that BT's service is for general purpose is not tenable. Mark Ballard, an investigative journalist, has been looking into the technical aspects of BT's contract with the US military.

“There's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this [BT contract] is part of the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN),” he told me over the phone. DISN is an internal military internet, used to share information. “Drones use DISN to disseminate mission data and for long-range command and control,” he wrote in Computer Weekly.

An RQ-1 Predator drone. (Photo via)

Indeed, this isn't your everyday broadband connection. Sitting at each end of the fibre-optic cable is a KG-340: an NSA-designed encrypting tool, used specifically for the high speed transfer of top secret data. In fact, a local Djiboutian phone company, Djibouti Teleco, was contracted to provide Lemonnier with a more standard internet connection – for soldiers to contact their loved ones, for example. So BT's infrastructure is not required for that.

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I went back to BT and provided them with this evidence. They declined to comment further, and instead reiterated that the fibre-optic cable “has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes”.

Regardless of whether they designed it themselves or were given a plan to follow, BT cannot claim ignorance that their products are being used to facilitate military operations. In order to complete such an idiosyncratic contract – a communications infrastructure being capable of carrying sensitive information from one base to another – they would need to understand the specifications of such a contract, according to Reprieve.

“They clearly know it because they provided the service,” Kat Craig, Reprieve’s Legal Director of the Abuses in Counter-Terrorism, told me.

Despite all this, the patriots among you might argue that BT is an innocent bystander in all this – that they’re merely providing a service and acting as a business. Surely it’s the US military – the people actually firing the drones – that should be held to account?

According to Reprieve, this doesn't reflect the relationship between private companies and militaries today. “We live in a globalised world, where business is increasingly influential,” Craig explained. “Human rights abuses may happen at the hands of governments, but corporations’ fingerprints are too often found at the scene.

“The drone strike that killed an innocent primary school teacher [Ali] in a country with whom we are not at war may not have been possible but for the assistance of big business.”

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Mohammed now cares for his deceased brother’s three children. This has put financial strain on the family, which is exacerbated by the loss of a car that cannot be easily replaced. Also destroyed in the attack was Ali's ceremonial dagger, which “carries great symbolism in our culture”, Mohammed said.

Since the strike, Mohammed has formed a National Organisation for Drone Victims (NODV). The aim is to create a network for those affected by the illegal strikes, helping to campaign for change. He hopes to bring “legal cases against those who collaborate in the drone programme, whether in Yemen or abroad, including British Telecoms”.

@josephfcox

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