Report released this week examining targeted US killings in Yemen

Bryony Clarke reports on the findings of the Human Rights Watch’s latest paper discussing US drone strikes.

Shortly after 4pm on September 2, 2012, residents of the Yemeni village of Sarar were confronted with a scene of utter horror and devastation. Charred corpses were strewn across the road, some mutilated beyond recognition.  A battered Toyota Land Cruiser lay on its side in flames, dusted in the flour and sugar its passengers had been bringing home from the market.

“About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs,” said Nawaf Massoud Awadh, a witness. “These were our relatives and friends.”

“About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs”…

This was the carnage that followed a US airstrike in Sarar, a village situated seven kilometres north of Radaa in central Yemen. Warplanes had been earlier seen loitering in the area and firing missiles, and when nearby residents came to investigate they discovered the daily shuttle service between Sabool and Radaa had been struck. 12 civilians died in the attack, including three children and one pregnant woman. Two further victims suffered severe injuries.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, local and international media reports initially described the victims as Al-Qaeda militants. But following the furious protests from the victims’ relatives, Yemen’s official news agency, Saba, labelled the strike an ‘accident’ and admitted that the 12 people killed were civilian casualties.

Unnamed Yemeni government officials were quoted by national newspapers as saying that the intended target of the attack had been Abd al-Raouf al-Dahab, a suspected member of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had been travelling along the same road as the shuttle bus but in a separate vehicle that was not hit.

The Sarar airstrike is one of six cases examined by the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report that was released this week concerning the collateral damage and civilian cost of US targeted killings in Yemen.

The 102-page report, “‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’, investigated selected US airstrikes against alleged terrorists from 2009 to 2013, and found that, of the 82 people killed in these incidents, at least 57 were non-combatants.

…of the 82 people killed in these incidents, at least 57 were non-combatants.

In December 2009, a US cruise missile strike on a Bedouin camp in the southern village of al-Majalah killed 14 alleged AQAP fighters and 41 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children. The attack involved cluster munitions, which HRW claims are inherently indiscriminate weapons that pose ‘unacceptable’ dangers to civilians.

On August 29, 2012, a US drone attack killed three alleged AQAP members in Khashamir, but a cleric who preached against AQAP, his cousin and a police officer also lost their lives in the attack.

The most recent drone strike to be scrutinised by the report occurred on April 17, 2013. Two US drones flying over Wessab, a remote mountainous district in eastern Yemen, launched at least three Hellfire missiles at a vehicle carrying Hamid al-Radmi, an alleged local AQAP leader.  At least five people were killed in the attack, including Radmi, his driver and two bodyguards.

The report also assessed the six strikes’ compliance with international humanitarian law and the laws-of-war. Two of the attacks which killed civilians indiscriminately constituted a clear violation of the laws of war, the report argued, while the others may have targeted individuals who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian fatalities.

“The US says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at HRW and the author of the report. “It’s long past time for the US to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.”

HRW has urged the US Congress to fully investigate the cases documented in the report and to disclose any evidence of human rights abuses to the public.

Bryony is a recent literature graduate and news junkie who has previously written for the Cambridge Student, the New Political Centre and the Independent.


  1. While the overall point of this article is valid and I totally agree with it, I think HRW and similar groups need to take care to ensure the information that they use is correct and/or factual.
    There is a reference here to a “cruise missile” attack that involved “cluster munitions”, but cruise missiles and cluster munitions are two completely different things. It’s also worth pointing out that drones of the type that are operated over Yemen can carry neither cruise missiles or cluster munitions.
    It’s very easy to throw terms like “cluster munitions” and “cruise missiles” around as if they are generic, but they’re not. They are very specific weapons, and people who have an understanding of the military will spot their incorrect use immediately. No doubt I’ll be dismissed for “nitpicking”, but failing to take the time to use the correct terminology reduces the credibility of a report into what is a very serious issue.


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