“There are no words to explain how horrific it is to see body parts blown to pieces,” said Yemeni engineer Faisal bin Ali Jaber at a November 19 Congressional briefing, as he recounted to US lawmakers the drone strike that killed his relatives last year, marking the second time a drone strike victim has ever directly addressed members of Congress.
Killing An Ally
Less than 24 hours after his son’s wedding in August 2012, a US drone launched four missiles on Faisal’s village, killing his brother-in-law, Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, 49, and his nephew, Waleed bin ali Jaber, 26.
“Right before the wedding, the people gathered in the area to celebrate,” said Faisal. “We saw many drones in the sky, but we didn’t expect anything to actually occur.”
Salem was a Yemeni cleric and father of seven who preached loudly against the extremism exhibited by Al Qaeda, which his family feared would invite violent retribution from Al Qaeda-linked militants. “Salem’s father told him to stop giving anti-Al Qaeda lectures out of fear they would attack him,” said Faisal. “But Salem insisted on doing so, saying if he didn’t speak against Al Qaeda, no one would.” But in the end, it was US violence that ended Salem’s life along with that of Waleed, who worked as a local policeman and was with Salem at the time of the strike.
US Officials Turn a Blind Eye
As for November’s historic briefing, just five members of the US House of Representatives bothered to show. Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Jan Schakowsky (D- Ill.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) hosted the briefing and were joined by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Those in attendance apologized to Faisal for his loss and expressed their disapproval of the drone program, with the harshest critique coming from Rep. Rangel, who called drone strikes “barbaric.” But no one could provide answers for why Faisal’s relatives were killed, given the veil of secrecy under which the drone program operates. This led Rep. Lee to use the briefing as an opportunity to promote the “Drone Accountability Act,” a bill she sponsored earlier this year demanding a moratorium on drone strikes and transparency about who has been killed, and why.
But Lee’s colleagues have been far less enthusiastic about shedding light on the human impact of drones, as demonstrated two days later when the GOP-controlled House intelligence committee rejected a provision requiring a public accounting of civilians killed in drone strikes.
President Obama showed even less interest in Faisal’s plight. Prior to arriving in the United States, Faisal requested a meeting with Obama during his visit to Washington, DC. The White House first responded with silence and then with a US drone strike on Faisal’s village the day of the briefing.
This wasn’t the first time Faisal had appealed to Obama for engagement on the drone issue.
In July, after another US drone strike pounded his village, Faisal wrote a moving letter to President Obama and Yemeni President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi.
“Our family are not your enemy,” insisted Faisal. “My family worried that militants would target Salem for his sermons. We never anticipated his death would come from above, at the hands of the United States. In his death you lost a potential ally – in fact, because word of the killing spread immediately through the region, I fear you have lost thousands,” read the letter. Faisal never received a response.
Global Drone Summit
The packed lecture hall at Georgetown Law School during CODEPINK‘s annual Global Drone Summit November 16 was a striking contrast to the tepid welcome Faisal received on Capitol Hill. Concerned citizens from around the world were anxious to hear from Yemenis and Pakistanis directly impacted by the drone war, illustrating the rising global backlash to the proliferation of drone warfare.
This gave Faisal an opportunity to talk about the psychological trauma inflicted by US drone strikes, which has been devastating for his family. Salem’s mother died two weeks after her son was killed, from grief. And Faisal fell into a deep depression and lost his job.
He told Truthout that the people in his village, particularly the children, live in a constant state of fear, with drones regularly hovering overhead. The mere sight of a family member’s car after an accident unrelated to drones sent his granddaughter into a terrified fit. “Once she saw the car, she started screaming, ‘It’s a drone strike! It’s a drone strike!” and she was afraid to even get near the car,” said Faisal. “So you can imagine the amount of fear it’s causing among children.”
“Hollowed-Out Shells of Children”
After conducting research in Yemen earlier this year, clinical and forensic psychiatrist Peter Schaapveld warned of a “psychological emergency” in towns impacted by drones, with 99 percent of Yemenis he spoke with suffering from PTSD.
He described the children he assessed as “hollowed-out shells of children” who are being “traumatized and re-traumatized” by lethal drones buzzing constantly overhead. Speaking about an 8-year-old Yemeni girl who witnessed a drone strike obliterate her neighbor’s home, Schaapveld said, “Her dreams are of dead people, planes and people running around scared.” Kat Craig, legal director of the UK nonprofit, Reprieve, who accompanied Schaapveld on his trip, said that the terror inflicted by drones in Yemen “amounts to a form of psychological torture and collective punishment.”
Echoing claims made by Yemeni activists on the ground, Schaapveld added that the drone war is driving young men into the arms of Al Qaeda. “[I]nstead of keeping us safe, they breed animosity and tear apart the fabric of some of the poorest and disenfranchised communities in the world,” said Schaapveld. “A hellfire missile costs over $60,000, which could be spent building schools and wells. Yemen needs aid and our support, not drones.”
This point was brought up repeatedly at the both the congressional briefing and drone summit by Entesar Al Qadhi, a prominent activist from Mareb, an area of Yemen devastated by drone strikes.
Drone Strikes Empower Al Qaeda
“Al Qaeda was not in my province until after US drones began striking my village,” Qadhi told lawmakers at the drone briefing. “What could justify terrorizing a community of thousands just to kill one person?”
She elaborated on these points at the drone summit.
“Until the United States interfered, we did not even know what Al Qaeda was,” she told the audience, adding that her fellow villagers are often stuck fighting Al Qaeda militants with absolutely no help from the Yemeni government.
Qadhi told Truthout that it’s common for a US drone to strike her village after residents have chased out Al Qaeda militants. “Before one of the latest strikes that happened in my village, there was a clash between Al Qaeda fighters and people in my village trying to protect their own,” Qadhi said. “A few days later, after things died down, there was a drone strike. The US and Yemen claimed that Al Qaeda militants were killed, but in reality it was two university students from my village.”
“The United States says they’re fighting Al Qaeda, but in reality we are the ones fighting them, and then the drones come and hit us,” she said. “We’re always wondering who’s going to be next. It’s terrifying. What we did to deserve this?”
As a result, many fear and have begun to despise the United States more than they do Al Qaeda. “Young kids have strangers coming into their land and attacking their families,” said Qadhi. “And now they want revenge against the US.”
Qadhi, who was visiting the United States for the first time, added that her impression of the country responsible for repeatedly bombing her village was unexpectedly positive. But this made her wonder why a nation of seemingly nice people who live rather comfortably will not allow Yemenis to live in similar peace. She said that in her village, drones often hover for days before striking, leaving the residents in constant fear.
“If you all are against terrorism then you should be against drones as well because drones are terrorism,” she implored. “My dream is to go back to my area and live in peace as you do here.”
Killing Democracy in Yemen
Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni youth activist and Reprieve’s Yemen project coordinator, told Truthout that the same number of people killed in Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising have been killed by the US drone program since. “This came from the same president who said he’s going to help Yemen build a new democracy,” said Shiban about Obama. He pointed to the tragic fate of his friend, an Arab Spring activist named Ali, to illustrate the disconnect.
“Ali was an elementary school teacher. He went out to the streets with us calling for a new democracy. This same person was killed by the US drone program, by the same president who said he’s going to help Yemen build a new democracy,” said Shiban.
Destroying Peace Negotiations in Pakistan
Pakistani politician and outspoken drone critic Shafqat Mahmood echoed Qadhi at the drone summit, saying that US strikes are empowering rather than weakening the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. “Drone strikes have pushed back the possibility for peace for us in Pakistan.” He specifically condemned a recent US drone strike that killed Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud. Though he described Mehsud as an “enemy of Pakistan,” Mahmood said that his assassination destroyed fragile peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban.
After a great deal of outrage over the destroyed negotiations at the time, Pakistan’s foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz said he received assurances from the United States that there would be no more drone strikes during the peace talks. But one day later, a suspected US drone fired three missiles at a Pakistani school, killing three teachers and two students.
Three Nations vs. the World
The Global Drone Summit included panels on various aspects of drone technology ranging from drone surveillance to autonomous killer drones. However, connecting drone warfare to racism and imperialism was a theme that popped up throughout the day beginning with the morning’s sermon-like keynote address by Cornel West.
“The dominant liberal response to Obama’s war crimes has been shameful,” he told Truthout later in the day. “It shows a certain moral bankruptcy on behalf of most liberals in terms of innocent human beings who have been killed and reflects the inability of neoliberalism to begin to come to terms with not just imperial crimes, but Wall Street crimes, as well as the crimes connected to the new Jim Crow with the prison-industrial complex.”
During a panel on drone proliferation, Chris Cole, an anti-drone activist from the United Kingdom who runs the website Drone Wars UK, pointed out that thus far, just three nations – the United States, UK and Israel – are using armed drones. Meanwhile, 12 nations, all of which are located in poor areas of the world inhabited by nonwhite populations, have been subject to drone strikes, including Gaza, Yemen, Pakistan’s North Waziristan and Somalia.
Cole attributed the rise of armed drones to militarily stretched nations attempting to get around antiwar public sentiment. “Empire has learned many times how to cope with war-weary citizens,” said Cole. “That’s why, in part, we see drone wars.”
Joe Nevins, professor of geography at Vassar College, spoke about the proliferation of drones on the US-Mexico border in enforcing what he termed a system of “global apartheid” that restricts the mobility of poor and often brown people desperate to find safer spaces across borders. “When people were denied mobility in South Africa, we called it apartheid,” said Nevins. “But on borders, we call it national sovereignty.”
Building Political Pressure against Drone-delivered Racist Imperialism
One way activists are combating the indifference that has accompanied the imperialist rise of drone warfare is by shedding light on the human toll.
Reprieve Strategic Director Cori Crider has no doubt that exposing Americans to drone victims like Faisal is having an impact. “This year we’ve seen a sea change in the debate in the United States about drones,” she told Truthout. “When we were starting this stuff in 2010, very few people were talking about it. Now, a lot more mainstream entities are a part of the debate and are asking questions about civilian casualties and about the wisdom of a putative counterterrorism policy that may well create tens and tens of people who have reason to wish us harm for every one that they may take out.”
Much like with Guantanamo, it is “individual human stories that change people’s minds,” thereby creating the necessary political pressure to bring about justice, argued Crider.
Though Faisal returned to Yemen without the answers or justice his family deserves from the US government, his story, resilience and courage in standing up to the world’s most dangerous superpower have fueled demands for accountability from a growing number of concerned citizens who want an end to the killing.