A Yemeni Man Is Suing British Telecom over America's Deadly Drone Strikes

Should corporations be held accountable when their products help kill civilians?

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May 23 2014, 5:25pm

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

A deep boom rocked through Sanaa, Yemen, 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. To find out what exactly had happened, he called someone he knew who lived in the village. The man on the other end of the phone read out the license 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.

This is what had happened: 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 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 schoolteacher, went along for the ride.

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

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

In footage of drone strikes, you normally see a target sitting in the center of a screen before a white flash erupts and fades, leaving nothing but absence 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 pickup. “The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming,” Mohammed told me. “The bodies were in pieces.”

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's story isn't unique. His brother Ali and cousin Salim were victims of the US targeted killing program, 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. That month "saw a heavy concentration of strikes,” Jack Serle of 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 last Easter weekend, when 40 Yemenis were killed.

Serle told me that Yemeni government sources initially claimed that as many as seven people 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 having any link to the men who rented their taxi. According to a translated version of the government document provided to me by Reprieve, a legal nonprofit that defends those accused of terrorism and other extreme crimes, “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.”

Now Mohmmaed, with Reprieve's help, is suing British Telecom (BT), a giant communications company that has allegedly been providing communications infrastructure to America’s targeted killing program in Yemen.

Mohammed al-Qawli

In 2012, BT won a contract to build communications infrastructure between a joint UK/US air force base in England and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, 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 program.

Back in July, Reprieve filed a complaint about BT's contract with the US military with the UK's National Contact Point (NCP), the governmental department that ensures multinational companies are abiding by OECD guidelines.

These non-binding guidelines urge companies to respect the human rights of those affected by their products and services and those of their clients. Additionally, if any sort of human rights violations do happen—such as the killing of civilians with Hellfire missiles—the OECD insists that companies work to resolve such situations. Reprieve feels that BT has violated the guidelines, firstly by providing vital infrastructure to the legally contentious US targeted killing program, and secondly by not taking any steps to ensure that human rights aren’t affected by their products.

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

In October 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 fiber-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, the NCP said it was under no obligation to “conduct research or interrogate” BT. A month later, the complaint against BT was dismissed.

Reprieve is now challenging the NCP's verdict. The nonprofit argues that BT's claims were too quickly taken at face value. According to a letter from Reprieve, “The NCP failed to query BT in detail or at all about its efforts to comply with the guidelines.”

A spokesperson for BT told me that the company “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 fiber-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.”

First of all, it’s hard to believe that no one at BT has heard about the US’s drone program. When I last spoke to company representatives in July, they claimed that the program was merely “rumor and speculation,” a bizarre stance considering it’s been covered pretty extensively by respected mainstream media outlets, particularly the strike that hit a wedding convoy in December.

Additionally, the position that BT's service is for general purpose is not tenable. Mark Ballard, an investigative journalist who has been looking into the technical aspects of BT's contract with the US military told me that “there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this [BT contract] is part of the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN)." DISN is an internal internet the military uses to share information. “Drones use DISN to disseminate mission data and for long-range command and control,” Ballard recently wrote in Computer Weekly.

An RQ-1 Predator drone. Photo via Fotopedia

Indeed, this isn't your everyday broadband connection. Sitting at each end of the fiber-optic cable is a KG-340, an NSA-designed encrypting tool used to transfer top-secret data at high speeds. A local Djiboutian phone company, Djibouti Teleco, was contracted to provide Lemonnier with a standard internet connection soldiers could use to contact their loved ones, for example. So BT's infrastructure is not required for mundane purposes.

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

Regardless of whether the cable was designed by BT, the telecom giant can't credibly claim to be ignorant of the fact that its products are being used to facilitate military operations. In order to complete such an idiosyncratic contract—a communications infrastructure capable of carrying sensitive information from one base to another—the company 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.

Some might argue that BT is an innocent bystander in all this—that it's 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 globalized world, where business is increasingly influential,” Craig said. “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.”

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 Organization 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 Telecom.”

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