Eight years after my brother-in-law and nephew were torn to pieces by a hellfire missile launched from a US drone, I am still fighting for answers.
When a German court ruled in my favor last year, it looked like we might finally be able to hold the US drone program accountable. On November 25, however, the Federal Administrative Court ruled that despite a previous court finding that the US military's Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany had played a “central role” in drone strikes in Yemen that regularly resulted in “civilian casualties”. Germany is under no obligation to do more than submit diplomatic protests to encourage the US government to act lawfully.
I have a hard time describing how I felt when my lawyer called with the news. I've got used to setbacks, but that loss was particularly devastating. I have wondered if anyone will ever be held responsible for the damage US drone strikes are doing to Yemen.
Since visiting Washington in 2013, I have asked the same simple question, "How come two innocent men who spoke out against terrorism were killed?" Well-meaning politicians in the US, Europe and my home country Yemen heard my story and expressed their sympathy, but no one gave an answer.
I filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Administrative Court in Münster and received minor recognition in March 2019 when the court found the US drone program in Yemen to be illegal. The court also ruled that Germany is responsible for strikes like the one that killed my relatives because the drones cannot fly without the support of Ramstein Air Base. The base plays a vital role in enabling communication between pilots in the US and drones flying in countries like Yemen.
Believe it or not, it was the first time a court in the western world was ready to complain. The U.S. military is not going to confirm or deny that it fired the missile, and when I challenged that silence in a U.S. federal court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that I was not eligible because only Congress can challenge the president's political decision to secretly kill people by remote control. Judge Janice Rogers Brown called Congressional control of the military a "joke" and warned of the "excessive power" of the presidential killing agency, but the case was dropped.
The ruling by the German court in March 2019 also marked the first time that any of the United States' international partners was classified as potentially complicit in its global assassination program. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnès Callamard, called it a "turning point" decision that challenges the US government's legal justification for deadly drone attacks.
Now even this small victory has been taken from us. By declaring Ramstein's role in the program as merely "technical", the Federal Administrative Court relieved Germany of any responsibility for what happens on its territory. In fact, the airbase does an essential role in strikes like the one that killed my relatives, as U.S. drones depend on the satellite links they provide.
My village of Khashamir is currently not a war zone, and it was not a war zone in August 2012 when my relatives were hit by US missiles. There are militants in the region, members of Al Qaeda, but they are outsiders with little community support.
My brother-in-law, Salem, was an imam dedicated to mobilizing the community against al-Qaeda. After he declared in a sermon that there could be no religious or legal justification for attacking civilians, three young men from outside the village asked to meet him. He agreed and firmly believed that words, not weapons, solve problems.
To this day we don't know who the men were or what they wanted. However, Salem was aware that the sermon he had recently given may have upset some people. So he took his nephew Waleed, a policeman, with him for protection. Little did he know that the threat he was facing was not coming from those he encountered, but from the US drone hovering overhead.
Has the United States targeted any of the men he met? Did the pilot even know who he was firing at? Because the U.S. government isn't going to say, we just don't know – all we have is a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable broadcast within hours of the strike stating that a mistake was made and innocent people were killed .
I was having dinner with my family when the rockets hit less than a mile away. It was as if the mountain had fallen. We stormed out and were faced with a terrible scene. At first we had no idea that our relatives were among the victims; The missiles are so powerful that nothing remains that resembles a human being. But after speaking to eyewitnesses and collecting clothing and burned meat, we realized the terrible truth.
I learned a lot about armed drones in my long search for justice and now I know that the attack has what is known as a "signature strike". In this case, the drone pilot does not know who he is trying to kill, only that the target person has a pattern of “suspicious” behavior. Often times, this pattern comes from metadata collected from cell phones. One drone pilot said, "We're looking for … phones in hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy."
Callamard, the United States' Special Rapporteur, provides data in her report showing the extent of unrecognized civilian casualties from armed drones. For example, the US drone program in Yemen from 2009 to 2014 killed 273 innocent men, women and children while attempting to kill 17 extremists.
The Airwars accident monitoring group released new findings in October showing that under the Trump administration, US drone strikes in Yemen killed at least 86 civilians, including 28 children. The United States has stopped admitting the strikes at all: the last to be recognized by the US Central Command was in mid-2019. Since then, Airwars has documented 30 local allegations of US strikes in Yemen, most likely ordered by the CIA. The Ministry of Defense does not even have a desk to monitor civilian victims in Yemen.
That does not surprise me. The US government has denied my pursuit of justice and accountability at every turn. The Supreme Court declined to hear my case and a letter to then-President Barack Obama went unanswered. I managed to speak to officials from the State Department and the National Security Council. They nodded politely, but were silent.
Shortly after my trip to Washington, I was called to the National Security Bureau of Yemen, the CIA's local partner in my home country. An officer gave me a blue plastic bag with $ 100,000 in $ 100 bills marked in a row. When I wanted to know where it came from and what it was for, he shrugged.
This is the next step the United States has taken to acknowledge that it killed Salem and Waleed: an anonymous payout with no acknowledgment of responsibility. After discussing it with my relatives, we took the money; With the lack of two breadwinners in their prime, the family has few other means of support. But if it was supposed to keep me calm, it didn't work. If anything, knowing how cheap the US government thinks life is cheap in Yemen has made me more determined.
At least Salem and Waleed deserve the same apology Obama rightly gave to two white Western hostages his administration killed in a drone attack in Pakistan.
Perhaps Joe Biden's recent election offers an opportunity for a reset, but I'm not optimistic. Yes, President Donald Trump relaxed the targets and removed the Pentagon's obligation to report civilian casualties, but it was Obama who escalated the program worldwide.
I hope Germany no longer supports the crimes of the United States. We in Yemen appreciate the support that Germany has given our country during this difficult war time. So it's disappointing that Germany continues to help the US attack our communities with drones.
My family in Khashamir talks about the drones that are still regularly buzzing overhead. My young nieces have never known anything else: The Reapers and Predators and the threat of immediate, violent death they represent have been present all their lives.
When people count civilian casualties, they often forget that entire communities are also traumatized and that the trauma is long-lasting. In addition, using drones in this cowardly way also helps terrorist groups by attracting young people to join them. Obama and Trump didn't seem to care. Maybe the elected President Biden and Chancellor Angela Merkel will reconsider.