Yemen's Bedouin Tribes Are Getting Sick of US Drone Strikes

Depending on which report you read, between 12 and 17 people died in the drone attack in Yemen on December 12, 2013. The youngest was 20, the oldest 65. Now, their families want answers, and in this forgotten corner of the Arab Spring, the government...

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Jan 22 2014, 1:30pm

Wreckage from the drone strike near Jism, Yemen

The wedding convoy was traveling through the mountainous landscape of al-Baydha when one of the vehicles broke down. It was mid-afternoon, around 185 miles from Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, and the convoy—traditionally called a zafa—was heading to the groom’s village of Jism. There were about 70 people packed into the 11 vehicles, most of them relatives.

Once the collection of cars and pick-up trucks had come to a halt, several men noticed the drone flying high overhead. The distinctive buzz had become a familiar sound throughout the past year, so they assumed it was simply conducting surveillance.

The flash of a missile launch proved otherwise.

Two rockets smashed into a pick-up truck, sending pieces of shrapnel flying into the other vehicles and their occupants. Two more missiles thudded into the ground next to the convoy. Those who could, fled on foot.

Depending on which report you read, between 12 and 17 people died in the attack on December 12, 2013. The youngest was 20, the oldest 65. Now, their families want answers, and in this forgotten corner of the Arab Spring, the government is feeling growing pressure to respond.

Ahmed al-Shafi’i (far right) with his son Zabanallah and the seven children of his deceased son, Aref

There is no running water or electricity in Jism, and schools, health clinics, and paved roads are non-existent. The Al-Abu Surayma tribe that populate the village are semi-nomadic; members move around the area to find better pastures for their goats. The simple, haphazardly built stone building where I spoke to Ahmed and Zabanallah al-Shafi’i can be quickly dismantled and rebuilt.

Ahmed's son, Aref, was 30 years old and married with seven children when he was killed by the missile strike.

"We found him with another body in a car," said the deceased's 70-year-old father, his voice steadily rising. "The others were just thrown—one here, one there. Just how the drone left them, ripped into pieces."

The villagers brought Aref’s body back to Jism, where they laid him alongside the other corpses in the mosque. "Women started screaming when they saw what had happened," Ahmed told us. "They were wailing from one side of the valley to the other. If you had heard it, it would have tormented you."

Initial Yemeni government reports asserted that up to five of the men killed in the strike had been militants. However, as word began to spread that several innocent civilians had also been killed, the government reached out through mediators to the victims’ families. In keeping with tribal custom, money and rifles were offered to the families as a kind of out-of-court settlement for their losses.

Although the Yemeni government has not released any official statements, the governor of al-Bayda province apologized for the missile strike in a meeting with tribesmen, and Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour condemned the attack. This was followed by a unanimous vote in parliament that called for the banning of drones.

So were there actually any al Qaeda members among the dead? The militant group’s Yemeni franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is undoubtedly active in the area. In Rada, a town 45 miles of dirt road away from Jism, AQAP’s black-flag insignia is daubed on plenty of walls, and locals there told us that the group had entered the town after the drone attack to capitalize on anger and attract recruits.

Ahmed al-Taysi's brother Salem died in the attack; he is pictured here with his brother's children.

The road to Sana’a was blocked every night in the week following the strike, and residents of Rada began to grow accustomed to the sound of AQAP clashing with the army. Last week, 12 soldiers were allegedly killed during an al Qaeda attack in al-Bayda.

While the residents of Rada and Jism who spoke to us denied that the people killed were members of AQAP, there were indications that at least one of the men present in the wedding convoy was a militant. US and Yemeni officials revealed that the target of the strike was Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, an AQAP operative said to have masterminded a plot that resulted in the closing of 19 US embassies around the world last summer. However, the name that some locals mention instead is Nasr al-Hutaim, a low-level AQAP member who had reportedly been arrested by the Yemeni government in early 2013 and had subsequently returned to the region. Locals said it was his truck that two of the missiles struck, but it's believed that al-Hutaim himself was not inside the vehicle when it was hit.

Zabanallah al-Shafi’i, another of Ahmed's sons, was quick to deny that his younger brother Aref—or any other victims of the drone strike—was associated with AQAP. "Terrorists? The people here are Bedouins," he said. "The drones are after a bunch of goat herders. There are no training camps here. We don’t know al Qaeda.”

Nasser al-Sanea—a local journalist who was the first reporter on the scene after the attack—believes drone strikes will cause Americans more harm than good. "Every time drones attack, there is an increase in sympathy for al Qaeda," he explained. "Say you hit four? Well, you’ve just recruited dozens."

Abdullah al-Taysi, who was injured and lost his son Ali in the strike.

The anger in the region over drone strikes is stoked by a deep resentment of the Yemeni government. In 2011, the country saw an unprecedented number of people take to the streets in an Arab Spring demonstration against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. Camps were set up in all of Yemen’s major cities and, after months of largely peaceful protests, Saleh stepped down in favor of his deputy, Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Ahmed al-Taysi lost his brother Salem in the strike. He now has to provide for Salem’s wife and six children, as well as his own four children. He crouched next to a rock as he spoke of his disdain for the Yemeni state, Salem’s orphaned children staring silently into the distance.

"The state has done nothing," he said. "Nothing. There’s nothing here."

"The primary man responsible is our president—the man we elected," said Sheikh al-Salmani, a local tribal leader. "We gave this man the legitimacy to rule over us, but he doesn’t care that his people are poor, he doesn’t care that his people are hungry, he doesn’t care that his people are treated badly in neighboring countries, he doesn’t care that his people are being hit with US drones."

Salmani continued: "We were expecting a country with a bright future, but nothing has changed in Yemen. We live in terrible conditions. But go to the officials’ villas and you’ll find millions of dollars of the people’s money."

And even when that money is offered back to the people, not everyone in Jism wants it. Abdullah al-Taysi survived the strike; his son Ali died. While talking to us, al-Taysi opened his shirt to reveal his shrapnel wounds. “We don’t want it,” he said of the government’s financial offer. "What will it do for me? If they gave me America and everything in it, I wouldn’t get to see my son come back."

What al-Taysi and others like him do want is accountability for the killings, a change to the country’s drone policy, and a government that is more responsive to the needs of its people.

If that doesn’t happen? "All of the tribes will join al Qaeda."

Follow Abubakr on Twitter: @abubakrabdullah

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