After 20 years of harmful military action in Yemen, the U.S. must change course

“My friends … weren’t remotely related to any military group. They were sitting here just like you right now,” a friend of two victims said after a drone strike killed both his friends and burned their beehives.

Saturday, May 1, 2021
After 20 years of harmful military action in Yemen, the U.S. must change course
مصغر للبيان 2021

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Ali Almurtadha, Bonyan Gamal

May 2, 2021

When the United States kills high-level members of AQAP in Yemen, media outlets cover these operations, quoting officials that sell these strikes as a “success” and helping create the false impression that such “precision strikes” only impact “terrorists.” Meanwhile, the harm U.S. operations have done to the very many Yemenis who have nothing to do with AQAP too often goes unnoticed. Their stories go unheard, and justice is never served. The Biden Administration has the chance to finally change course.

Working for Mwatana for Human Rights, a prominent Yemeni human rights organization, we have both -for the last two years- worked on the civilian impact of US operations in Yemen. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, Mwatana documented 10 U.S. air strikes, all apparently conducted by drones, and two ground operations that resulted in the deaths of 38 Yemeni civilians, including 13 children, six women, and 19 men. At least seven others, including six children, five of whom were under the age of ten, were injured in these operations. Talking to families, witnesses and those affected by these operations, we realized that their suffering has extended beyond losing their loved ones to these unexplained operations, their lives changed after they lost their breadwinners making their already hard lives unbearable. Many of the local residents decided to leave their homes preferring displacement to living in this constant state of fear.

Life in areas of Yemen that are regularly subjected to U.S. military operations have become a struggle with uncertainty. In our research, we heard many questions from families living in these areas. Some felt a potential error in calculations could result in their demise. They wondered how best to protect themselves and their loved ones. “Should I go outside today? How do I minimize my chances of being hit? Maybe I shouldn’t drive my pickup truck,”

one local resident said. “My friends … weren’t remotely related to any military group. They were sitting here just like you right now,” a friend of two victims said after a drone strike killed both his friends and burned their beehives.

Living in this constant state of fear has taken a psychological toll on survivors, their family members and the wider community.

“My six-year-old son wanted to go to the bathroom but then returned without going. When I asked him the reason, he said, ‘I don’t want you all to die without me if the drone hits,’” a father told Mwatana.

As U.S. operations have continued to kill and wound civilians, fear has increased. This is particularly the case given that, until now, there has been no indication the U.S. is ready to acknowledge the extent of harm it has caused, nor to fundamentally change course.

For the families that have lost loved ones or were otherwise harmed by U.S. operations, efforts to seek answers, amends and accountability have almost always been stifled. When more transparency is demanded, the response has been, more often than not, “We can’t tell you that.” And, when accountability is sought, the shield of “national security” has been regularly used to deflect.

Channels to communicate with those carrying out these operations remain limited, and currently offer little hope for victims and their loved ones. Mwatana made extensive efforts to present compelling evidence of civilian harm in Yemen to U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for operations in Yemen. We were looking forward to the day when we could call families to tell them the US had acknowledged their loved ones were civilians, and would provide amends. But, after all this work, to date, the US has made no additional acknowledgments of civilian harm. It remains unclear to us what would ever be enough to convince the US military they had, in fact, gotten it wrong.

Even in the very rare instances where the U.S. has acknowledged it killed civilians in Yemen, we do not know what, if any, changes the U.S. has made to avoid future civilian harm, or what, if any, steps the U.S. has taken to try and provide relatives of those harmed with proper amends.

Almost all the conversations we had with the relatives of those killed in US operations had something in common: No one from the United States or the Yemeni government had reached out to them to understand what had happened to them or to offer them any kind of amends.

“No one knows where we are and no one cares,” a husband of a women who was killed during a drone strike said to us.

That sentence has haunted us since. While the U.S. justifies its operations in Yemen on the grounds of protecting the American people, it often ignores the fact that Yemenis are far more often victims of these groups’ attacks. The suicide attacks in 2015 that targeted two mosques in Sana’a is only one example. We both lived in Sana’a at the time. The attacks killed over a hundred people. We know the violence of these groups well; we have seen the results of their actions.

“I don’t understand why all of this happened, we have fought Al Qaida and kicked them out of our village,” one witness of a 2017 raid told us.

After nearly two decades, U.S. drone strikes and ground operations have not succeeded in stamping out this violence. On the contrary, organizations like AQAP capitalize on U.S. operations in Yemen to recruit fighters and spread propaganda.

In addition to a more productive position towards the wider conflict in Yemen that prioritizes diplomacy, the Biden administration should take a hard look at the impact of US operations in Yemen, too. That starts with a full review of what’s happened, including examining the lawfulness of U.S. operations, acknowledging the civilian impact, and ensuring accountability for wrongdoing and meaningful reparations to victims.

It is long past time the U.S. changed course in Yemen and dealt with the country in a way that respects the most fundamental human rights, including the right to life. Yemenis deserve to be treated with far more dignity than they have been. For the United States, this should start with an approach to shared human security that does not end with people on one side of the globe having to fear perishing at the push of a button by people on the other.


Ali Almurtadha is a human rights researcher whose work included the investigation of violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict.

Bonyan Jamal is an accountability specialist at Mwatana for Human Rights, exploring venues for accountability and redress for international law violations.