Yemeni Civil Engineer, Who Had Two Family Members Killed by Drone, to Address Congress Members

Kevin Gosztola | November 18, 2013

A Yemeni civil engineer, who spoke at the 2013 Drone Summit organized by the peace group, CODEPINK, has come to the United States to share his story about how a US drone strike killed his two relatives.

Five men were gathering behind a local mosque in their village of Khashamir in southeast Yemen when a US drone launched Hellfire missiles at them. Four of the men were instantly killed, their bodies blown into pieces. The fifth man was killed as he tried to crawl away.

The attack took place on August 29, 2012. Yemen’s Defense Ministry initially claimed that three members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been killed. Two of the individuals killed, according to a Human Rights Watch report, turned out to be Salim bin Ali Jaber, “a cleric and father of seven,” who “had long preached against AQAP’s violent methods.” Another man killed was Walid bin Ali Jaber, “one of the village’s few police officers.” They had been participating in a meeting because “three alleged AQAP members” wanted to meet with him about a recent “strong denunciation of AQAP at the local mosque.”

Both Salim and Walid were Yemeni civil engineer Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s brother-in-law and nephew.

Faisal described to Firedoglake how he had written letters and issued calls or demands to the Yemeni government, but questions asked to the government had gone ignored. He realized over time the decision had been made here in the US. It was time for him to travel to America and “talk to the people” of the US directly and “see the people here.”

“Do they approve of such a policy? Do they approve of the killing of innocent civilians in a very far country?” Faisal said he wanted to find out. Or, are they people who believe Yemen means them no harm? “What is their reaction? Are they a peaceful society which really doesn’t mean any harm to other people?” So far, he’s found people are willing to let him share his story.

In the aftermath of the drone strike, Faisal explained he entered “moments of shock.” For a “very long time,” he could not imagine Salim and Walid had really been torn into pieces. He thought one day they might reappear and tried to believe the drone strike had not happened.

Faisal tried to prevent his grandchildren from having to know the gruesome details of the strike. He initially hid the story. But. as much as he tried to hide the story, “children from their age or a little bit older” told them what happened. This gave them a very dark image about the nature of drones in their country.

He recounted a moment where one of his family members had a car accident. Nothing that took place related to drone strikes at all. But, when one of his granddaughters saw the crash, she began to scream about how the car had been hit by a drone and was afraid to go near the car.

The Jaber family’s village is in the province of Hadramaut, a province that Faisal described as a “quite peaceful area.” He said the province had not been affected by tribal conflicts or trouble between families like some places in Yemen. The only weapons in the province are personal weapons owned by those who have them to protect their farms.

“There’s never been like armed clashes inside the area and the only time when we saw the weapons coming out from homes was after the strike in exactly the same day when the strike happened,” Faisal added.

Faisal wrote to President Barack Obama and Yemen president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Haddi on July 31, 2013, nearly one year after the strike and ahead of a meeting in Washington between the two presidents. He was distressed that neither Yemen nor the US had acknowledged the deaths and offered an apology.

He asked how the strike could have been undertaken in “self-defense.” The fear his family had was that Salim would be targeted for the truth he was speaking his sermons by militants, not by a drone being operated by a supposed ally.

Faisal also wondered how anyone could claim the strike had been a “last resort.” The “town was no battlefield.” There was “no warning.” The police were not asked to make an arrest.

As to whether it was “proportionate”:

…The day before strike, Khashamir buzzed with celebrations for my eldest son’s wedding. Our wedding videos show Salim and young Walid in a crow of dancing revelers joining the celebration. Traditionally, this revelry would have gone on for days—but for the attack. Afterwards, it was days before I could persuade my eldest daughter to leave the house, such was her terror of fire from the skies…

Faisal expressed frustration with how America could claim to be a democracy and Obama could say he is responsible for conducting drone strikes and yet not have the courage to apologize for killing his relatives.

Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni who works for the human rights organization, Reprieve, and helped translate what Faisal said for this report, explained the “worst fear” he had about the impact of strikes, especially like the one that brought pain and suffering to the Jaber family, is that it is having a destabilizing effect on the Yemen government.

“People lost trust in the Yemeni government because of the fact that the Yemeni government cannot protect them from those strikes,” Shiban stated.

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, anywhere from 45-54 drone strikes have taken place killing anywhere from 268-393 people. Anywhere from 21-58 civilians have been killed along with five children. Somewhere between 65-147 have been injured.

Shiban has traveled to the nine provinces in Yemen where strikes have taken place. He said the “general view among people” he has visited is that “they didn’t imagine that drone strikes would start taking place inside villages, inside where people are living.” They thought before 2011 the strikes would occur in “far rural areas” where people were not living.

For example, Shiban added, in Mareb, there was one night where three strikes took place in the same area.

“We say there has been some collateral damage. Of course, there will be collateral damage if you’re attacking inside the residential area. The reason is why this is increasing is because the whole policy from the beginning – and once you start to allow this to happen once it’s going to increase and increase and one day you’re going to kill civilians,” he declared.

Shiban submitted testimony for a rare hearing held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus on drones in May of this year. He also has been a member of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which the State Department has supported as a part of Yemen’s transition to a democracy in the aftermath of the revolution in Yemen in 2011.

The NDC has passed a ban and called upon the Yemen government to criminalize extrajudicial killings. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid from the US government, the aid has not meant the construction of hospitals and schools but rather that drones have been raining death from the sky.

It was not easy to travel to the US. Initially, the State Department said it would be two months before they could even conduct an interview so that they could get visas. Multiple individuals from Yemen, who wanted to travel for the summit, were also told, according to CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, that they would not be granted visas. Calls to the State Department and the assistance of a few members of Congress helped push the agency to let them travel.

Entesar Qadhi, a female politician from the Mareb province in Yemen, traveled to the US as part of the delegation as well.  She is a youth representative in the NDC and was a key participant in the revolution.

Faisal already met with Rep. Jim McGovern and Rep. Hank Johnson prior to the summit. They both expressed sympathy that he had lost his family but Faisal said it was not clear to them what they would do to help the people of Yemen.

Faisal, Qadhi and Shiban will be meeting with officials from 15 different Senate offices today. They also will be addressing members of Congress in a briefing on November 19 at 4 pm in the Rayburn Building. They will be there because they have come to understand that no amount of protest will work against the government of Yemen. The people with “their hands on the trigger are here in America.”

UPDATE: It has now been announced that Reps. Barbara Lee, Alan Grayson and Jan Schakowsky will be the hosts of a 4 pm congressional briefing at the Rayburn building in Room 2456 tomorrow. During the briefing, a Yemeni delegation will speak about the impact of US drones on their country. Testimony will be given by Faisal bin Ali Jaber, whose relative, an outspoken al Qaeda critic, was killed by a US drone.

This article originally appeared on The Dissenter on November 18, 2013.