Graffiti of a U.S. drone in Yemen
Graffiti protesting American drone operations in Sana, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images)

Drone Strike Victims In Yemen Are Desperate For Accountability from the U.S

As a new generation of Yemenis confronts the fear of U.S. attacks, they are taking action and demanding answers.
April 15, 2021, 3:30pm

The sound is so distinctive, so foreign, that Ahmed Saeed Abdallah bin Ali Jaber can hardly even describe it. Not so loud that you can’t hear someone speak, but just loud enough that you know it’s there. A decade ago, Ahmed had never even heard a drone’s low hum; since then, the sound has dominated his life, kept him awake, and invaded his sleep.  

In August 2012, Ahmed was sitting with his uncle, cleric Salem bin Ali Jaber, by the side of a mosque in the Yemeni village of Khashamir. Salem had recently given a fiery sermon criticizing al Qaeda’s killings of Yemeni civilians, and government officials and three strangers had just arrived in the village to speak with him. Fearing they were militants, he avoided them for hours before deciding to meet with them, taking along his cousin, Yemeni policeman Waleed bin Ali Jaber, for protection. As Salem, Waleed, and the three strangers talked, and the village looked on, two Hellfire missiles crashed out of the sky. When Ahmed ran toward the strike zone, two more missiles hit. Salem, Waleed, and the three suspected members of al Qaeda were all killed.   

For close to nine years, Ahmed has felt like a marked man. “I was with both of them, just minutes before the attack,” he explained to VICE World News. “It became incredibly real to me.” It’s been the same for his neighbors who have lived with the fear that any person at any time might be obliterated by Americans watching them via video feed half a world away. “Anyone who is walking in this village, anyone living here, could be the next target,” said Ahmed. “When you hear a drone buzzing. Everyone in the village relives that moment again.” 

“Anyone who is walking in this village, anyone living here, could be the next target.”

Ahmed’s near-decade of anxiety offers a window into the lives of thousands of Yemenis who have survived, witnessed, or been proximate to U.S. drone strikes. While the Biden administration is currently conducting a review of lethal counterterrorism missions outside of war zones, the United States has never honestly grappled with U.S. attacks in Yemen, much less the now-multigenerational psychological fallout, instead maintaining that as few as four civilians may have been killed during almost 20 years of air and ground strikes.

For years on end, Ahmed, his neighbors from the village of Khashamir, and Yemenis from other areas of the country subject to U.S. attacks have lived with the relentless hum of aircraft that they know could, at any moment, rain missiles down upon them. In a bid for some measure of accountability and protection for his family, Ahmed recently filed a complaint with Germany’s highest court regarding the role of a U.S. base in Germany to the drone war in Yemen. Along with others, he also wants answers from the Biden administration about the reasons they and their children must live in a perpetual state of fear. Their questions, passed along to the White House by VICE World News, have gone unanswered.      

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Numerous studies and analyses have documented the killing of civilians during U.S. attacks in Yemen. A recent report by the Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights examined 12 missions, 10 of them counterterrorism airstrikes, carried out by the United States in Yemen between January 2017 and January 2019. At least 38 Yemeni civilians—19 men, 13 children, and six women—were killed and seven others were injured in the attacks.  

These were, however, just a fraction of the U.S. operations during the Trump era.

While the Obama years saw a marked escalation of the war in Yemen—including the strike that killed Salem and Waleed bin Ali Jaber—attacks spiked in 2017 under the Trump administration, with 133 declared U.S. airstrikes and commando raids. Over four years, the number of declared attacks during the Trump administration—181—nearly equaled the total of eight years under President Obama. Attacks under President Trump resulted in 42 civilian casualty incidents and an estimated 86 to 154 civilian deaths, according to the U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars. 

Beyond the dead and physically wounded, the Mwatana for Human Rights report also documented the heavy burdens borne by survivors of the attacks and witnesses to their aftermath, as well as the fear induced by the persistent hum of drones. 

“People described a range of social and psychological harms following U.S. operations. Sometimes, that was what you might expect, feeling helpless and depressed long after a strike, or being afraid that you or your family members might suddenly die,” Kristine Beckerle, the legal director for accountability and redress at Mwatana for Human Rights, told VICE World News. “Other times, and in many cases, people linked physical ailments that had arisen after attacks to the trauma resulting from attacks. One young person described what sounded a lot like survivor's guilt. He survived an operation, his cousin did not.”

“These echo effects don't get as much attention, say, as numbers of civilian casualties, but they're deeply impactful to immediate family members and wider communities.”

While the attack that killed Salem and Waleed bin Ali Jaber is not covered in Mwatana’s investigation, Ahmed and another relative, Khaled Mohmed Naser bin Ali Jaber, said that their entire village has suffered from persistent psychological trauma due to the 2012 attack and the continued presence of drones overhead. “These echo effects don't get as much attention, say, as numbers of civilian casualties, but they're deeply impactful to immediate family members and wider communities,” added Beckerle.  

Khaled, who saw the charred remains of Salem and Waleed and assisted in cleaning their corpses prior to burial, is haunted by the memory and recurring nightmares. In one, he’s being chased by a drone. In another, he relives the recovery of his relatives’ bodies. Still another is nearly the same dream, except this time he’s picking up what’s left of his young son. “My family and I live in a constant state of fear. You don’t know if or when you’re going to be targeted next,” he said, speaking openly about his depression and the overwhelming anxiety which forces his wife, when he is away from the village, to stay with neighbors.

A man sits with three children on colorful rugs.

Ahmed Saeed Abdallah bin Ali Jaber sits with his children in Yemen. He recently filed a complaint with Germany’s highest court regarding the U.S. drone war. (Courtesy of Reprieve)

“Yemeni residents, particularly in certain areas of the country, have been forced to live with U.S. strikes and the possibility that these strikes may kill civilians, including themselves or their family members, for many years,” reads the recent Mwatana report. “The operations also caused significant social and psychological harm to survivors, those who lost loved ones, and wider impacted communities. In a few cases, surviving members of families left their homes after U.S. operations, saying they felt unsafe and worried about future strikes.”

Prior analyses have come to similar conclusions. A September 2012 study of civilians in Pakistan by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law discovered “U.S. drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.” The researchers found the constant presence of drones, the fear that a strike might occur at any time, and the inability of people to protect themselves “terrorize[d] men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”  

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A 2015 study by the Alkarama Foundation, a human rights group, found that among Yemenis living in two villages where U.S. drones operated, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was “extremely prevalent” with many suffering from constant worry; a persistent fear of being killed, or having a relative killed, in a drone attack; and sleep disorders including nightmares or insomnia. 

In January, a VICE World News investigation chronicled seven separate attacks by the United States—six drones strikes and one raid—that killed 36 members of two large, intermarried, families between 2013 and 2018. (Some of these deaths are referenced in the 2021 Mwatana for Human Rights report.) A quarter of the dead were children between the ages of three months and 14 years old. One family member, Abdullah Abdurabuh Obad al Taisy, also told VICE World News about the psychological fallout among survivors, especially children. “Everyone in the village is affected,” he said. “They usually can’t sleep properly because of the fear. They can’t even eat properly. Even the children are afraid to go out and play. Some of them are mentally sick right now, because of this constant feeling of fear.”

“Our children are suffering from psychological trauma.”

The impact of drones on Yemeni children has been devastating. Members of the bin Ali Jaber family, who live in a different province, more than 400 miles away, echoed this testimony. “Our children are suffering from psychological trauma,” said Ahmed bin Ali Jaber. “When children hear the drones hovering above, they begin screaming and run to their homes.”  Khaled explained that all he can do for his children is usher them inside and turn up the volume on the radio to drown out the incessant whirring of the drones flying overhead.

The 2015 Alkarama study found that more than half the children interviewed said drones impeded their general happiness in the two weeks before they were screened, and 96% said they were afraid that a drone attack might harm them, or their family, or their community with “the feeling of fear… further exacerbated among children when they hear sounds that resemble the buzzing of drones.” The Mwatana report offered an anecdote from one father: “My six-year-old son wanted to go to the bathroom but then returned without going. When I asked him the reason, he said, ‘I don’t want you all to die without me if the drone hits,’” he told an interviewer.

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In Ahmed’s family, a child who was just a baby when the 2012 attack occurred has suffered developmental setbacks and extreme anxiety. “He’s living in a complete state of fear.  He can’t be left alone. He needs to take medication to calm him down,” said Ahmed. Khaled explained that a pre-teen girl from his family, who was only 50 feet away from the missile strikes, lives in constant dread, and refuses to sleep without a parent at her side.  “She went to therapy, but she continues to suffer,” he told VICE World News. “We want to prevent what happened to [her] from happening to our own children.”

Recently, Ahmed and Khaled, assisted by Reprieve, an international human rights organization that has represented drone strike victims, filed a complaint with Germany’s highest court. The case of Bin Ali Jaber v. Germany focuses on the German government’s responsibility to protect the bin Ali Jaber family from further attacks involving a U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany that is integral to the drone program. It’s the latest twist in ongoing legal proceedings that have seen both successes and reversals for the family. 

In 2015, The Intercept published a top-secret document that revealed Ramstein as the site of a satellite relay station allowing pilots in America to fly drones in Yemen, Somalia, and other countries. Four years later, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster ruled that Germany was obligated to ensure that the U.S. complies with international law when using the base. Last year, that judgment was overturned on appeal when a Federal Administrative Court decided that the diplomatic efforts of the German government would suffice regardless of whether the U.S. drone missions violated international law. The new complaint, filed late last month, asserts that Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court should have obliged the German government to do more to protect the plaintiffs’ right to life. The court may choose to consult with experts or request further information before making a ruling which may be years away.     

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The bin Ali Jaber family’s complaint follows a January 26 petition by Aziz al Ameri, on behalf of the al Ameri and al Taisy families, against the U.S. government through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States that observes and investigates human rights conditions throughout the Western Hemisphere. This separate bid, also supported by Reprieve, seeks “precautionary measures” that effectively serve as an injunction against further attacks on the family. 

Both efforts are just the latest attempts by Yemenis to achieve a modicum of accountability for family members killed, wounded, and traumatized in an undeclared war that the United States has been waging for the better part of two decades.

People hold signs and drone replicas while protesting.

People in Yemen protest against the use of drones in Sana'a, Yemen in 2019. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

“The U.S. armed drone program is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties and could not operate without the support of European partners, including Germany,” said Jennifer Gibson, a human rights lawyer and project lead on extrajudicial killing at Reprieve, of Ahmed and Khaled’s complaint to the German to the German high court. “With this legal filing, the bin Ali Jaber family is taking a stand for all the innocent victims whose lives should have been protected.”

The U.S. acknowledges just four to 12 civilian deaths as a result of military operations in Yemen, all the result of a single raid by Navy SEALS on January 28, 2017 that was chronicled in VICE World News’s January investigation. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) would not provide a count of civilian casualty allegations received or confirm if any involving Yemeni civilians are currently under review. “We will not be able to provide this information as it may compromise ongoing assessments and investigations,” Lieutenant Colonel Karen Roxberry, a CENTCOM spokesperson told VICE World News. 

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The Biden administration has imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and ground attacks outside conventional war zones, in countries like Somalia and Yemen, as it assesses whether to amend Trump-era rules for such operations. “The president’s review is underway and includes an examination of the legal and policy frameworks governing these matters. This review includes an examination of previous approaches in the context of evolving counterterrorism threats in order to appropriately refine our approach going forward,” a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told VICE World News. “In addition, the review will seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures.”

“To have any credibility when proposing how to move forward, the U.S. should be doing a full review of what's already occurred—including the civilian harm and lawfulness of each operation conducted in Yemen since this began.”

While Kristine Beckerle of Mwatana for Human Rights believes the review by the Biden administration  is a positive step, she expressed concern about its scope. “To have any credibility when proposing how to move forward, the U.S. should be doing a full review of what's already occurred—including the civilian harm and lawfulness of each operation conducted in Yemen since this began,” she said. “That might sound like a big ask. It's far less costly than these operations have been to Yemenis over the years.”

As survivors who have borne those very costs, Khaled and Ahmed had questions that only the White House can answer. Ahmed wanted to know if the Biden administration had any idea how difficult the lives of villagers have been because America continues to fly drones above Khashamer; Khaled’s question was even more pointed. “[Do] the people who live in our village have the right to a decent life and to live without the fear of being killed by a drone?” he asked. 

The administration official failed to offer answers to those questions—or any hint of whether Biden would order substantive changes to U.S. policy in terms of drone strikes. “It would be premature to anticipate specific recommendations that will result from this [National Security Council]-led interagency process,” they said.