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August 12, 2013

Who Are US Drones Killing in Yemen -- and Why?

Amid all the talk of closed embassies and evacuation of U.S. citizens and employees from around the Middle East and North Africa, there's been only the faintest news coverage of the barrage of U.S. drone strikes that have pummeled Yemen and killed some 34 people in just over a week.

President Obama at his pre-vacation press conference Friday promised more "transparency" on U.S. government surveillance programs. But he made no mention of the need for more information about who our government is secretly killing abroad. And while U.S. government officials have happily reported intercepting an alleged phone conversationamong al Qaeda leaders (the details of which keep changing) that prompted the embassy closures and evacuations, they've provided no information on who the United States has killed in retaliation with its latest drone strikes, or why.

That's no small omission.

As a matter of international law, the United States only has the right to kill members of armed forces it's at war with, or civilians directly participating in hostilities in war. And it is hardly clear that the U.S. is "at war" with anyone in Yemen. Outside of war, the rules for killing are much stricter: The U.S. can only kill individuals who pose an imminent threat to human life that cannot be ameliorated by means other than lethal force.

So is that who the military and CIA have killed over the past two weeks? Who knows?

Let's look at what little we do know.

Since July 27, the Associated Press reports, drone attacks in Yemen's southern and central provinces have killed 34 "militants" suspected of being members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, according to Yemeni government officials. On Thursday alone, Yemeni officials said, the U.S. drones conducted three airstrikes, killing 12 militants.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have said nothing officially about the strikes, or even acknowledged they're happening. President Obama at his Friday afternoon press conference, responding to a question about the drone strikes, said he would not discuss "operational issues."

Unofficially, an unnamed senior U.S. official told the Washington Post: "It's too early to tell whether we've actually disrupted anything."

According to the Post: "The official described the renewed air assault as part of a coordinated response to intelligence that has alarmed counterterrorism officials but lacks specific details about what al-Qaeda may target or when."

"What the U.S. government is trying to do here is to buy time," the official added.

Oddly, no one seems to be questioning the legality of the United States using drones to kill groups of people merely suspected of being "militants" -- who may not even be fighting the United States -- as a way of "hunting" for an al Qaeda leader, or "buying time" till we learn more details about the threat.

Are we engaged in an armed conflict with AQAP? The U.S. government has never said. Given that AQAP is a relatively small armed group based entirely in Yemen and fighting the Yemeni government, it's not at all clear that we have a lawful justification to be fighting them. If the U.S. is fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government, then it certainly ought to tell that to the American people.

It's not like these drone strikes in Yemen come with no cost. Past drone strikes in Yemenhave killed civilians, provoking angry responses.

We don't yet know who exactly these latest drones have struck. But the Associated Press has reported that the alleged plot the U.S. hoped to disrupt was in retaliation for a previous U.S. drone strike.

Meanwhile, it's not clear how serious the threat in Yemen really was, or if those killed had anything to do with it. Experts have expressed skepticism about the U.S. claim that al Qaeda leaders were communicating about a planned attack, saying that these leaders never meet or even communicate by phone because they know they're under such tight surveillance.

One political analyst in Yemen told the AP, for example, that if al Qaeda leaders were talking, it was probably just the group "trying to make an impression" after suffering severe losses.

Of course, the threat may be real, and deadly serious. But the U.S. government still needs to be more open about how it's responding to it, what right it has to kill unnamed people merely suspected of some connection to militant groups in a foreign country, and whether its secret drone war in Yemen is actually reducing the threat.

Respected analysts of the situation there are skeptical.

Yemeni expert and Princeton scholar Gregory D. Johnsen, for example, recently wrote that despite killing some 600 people in Yemen with drones, the secret U.S. war has not reduced AQAP's strength. Indeed, the group over the last four years has grown from about 300 members to over one thousand.

Johnsen explains some key points the U.S. seems to have overlooked in its Yemen operations:

The men that the United States is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen and clansmen with friends and relatives.
The United States can target and kill someone as a terrorist, only to have Yemenis take up arms to defend him as a tribesman. In time, many of these men are drawn to al Qaeda not out of any shared sense of ideology, but rather out of a desire to get revenge on the country that killed their fellow tribesman.

The wisdom of the U.S. drone strategy is therefore highly questionable.

Add to that the questionable legality of U.S. actions, and we do not have a good situation on our hands. At the very least, the United States must do a better job of explaining it.

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.