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Witness to a Massacre: Yemeni Tribal Leader Recalls How U.S. Attack on al-Majalah Killed 45 Civilians

Web ExclusiveJune 07, 2013
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Watch Part 1 and Part 2 of today’s special on U.S. military operations in Yemen.

In this web-only segment, we look at the first air strike on Yemen authorized by President Obama. On Dec. 17, 2009, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) launched a cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah. The Yemeni government initially took credit for the strike, saying it had targeted an al-Qaeda training camp. But it was later revealed through the WikiLeaks cables that it was in fact a U.S. attack. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reports extensively on this attack in his new book and film Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. The film, directed by Richard Rowley, opens today. Among the first Yemenis to arrive at the scene of the bombing was Yemeni tribal leader Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, at the time a member of the Yemeni Parliament. He went there to investigate who was behind the bombing and found the victims were Bedouin villagers, not al-Qaeda members.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to part two of our conversation about secret U.S. military operations inside Yemen. The first air strike on Yemen authorized by President Obama was on December 17, 2009. It was a cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah. The Yemeni government initially took credit for the strike, saying it had targeted an al-Qaeda training camp. But it was later revealed through the WikiLeaks cables that it was in fact a U.S. attack. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reports extensively on this attack in his new book and film, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, and he joins us now. The film, directed by Rick Rowley, opens today around the country, in Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles, in New York, and is opening in cities all over the country in the coming weeks.

Among the first Yemenis to arrive at the scene of the bombing was Yemeni tribal leader Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, at the time a member of the Yemeni Parliament. He went there to investigate who was behind the bombing. He says the victims were Bedouin villagers, not al-Qaeda members. Sheikh Fareed joins us from the Southampton studios of BBC in Britain. And I wanted to start by asking you, Sheikh Fareed, what did you see when you arrived at the scene?

SALEH BIN FAREED: It was, I mean, unbelievable. And the Americans or our government, they could have sent 10 or 20 people, if they thought that there was anybody from al-Qaeda. They told us that they were training fields, there were huge storage, stores for the ammunition and arms. When we reached there, we only—we found nobody at all except those poor Bedouin people who live just across the road from the main road. And, of course, we have to collect all the bodies and bury them in the village after that. And I assure you, and I challenge anybody—I challenge anybody in the United States of America, especially the American government, to prove that there was anybody from al-Qaeda at that site at all, when they bombed it with about seven huge rockets from the naval in the sea.

AMY GOODMAN: The evidence of the weapons used, Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, what did you see?

SALEH BIN FAREED: They are the same weapons they say they have used against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I mean, our government, at the beginning, said that it was Yemeni air force. The Yemen air force cannot carry this kind of huge rockets. The rocket is nearly the same size as our fighting airplanes. And, thank God, we—then we, of course—I go in again with the team from the member of Parliament, because I was a member of Parliament. We were about 15 of us. And we showed the site, and we showed them the rest of the rockets, which—which is not—it is the end of it. And all over that is written “Made in the United States of America.”

Unfortunately, the site was not cleared. After the killing of the massacre, the second day—or, third day, I called for a meeting for all the tribesmen all around, and there were about 60,000 who came to see the site, just to prove to the whole world that there was no—no al-Qaeda people, there was no stores, there was no fields, training fields there, and to show it is an open space. The same day, after we left the meeting, those people, after—some people, some of the tribesmen, they took some small pieces of the rockets, and it exploded, exploded, and it killed three of them straightaway. Still today—’til today, the site is full of these rockets, I mean, the rest of the rockets. And 'til today, of course, about two months, about three months—no, sorry, about six months back or one year, two children, about the age of eight and nine, they go in, and they collected some of these small ones, and they took it back home. And when they were—family were having lunch together, then the father asked them, “What's that?” They said, “We brought it from the site.” Then he said, “Oh, throw it away.” And when they throw it away, it exploded. It killed the father, the mother, and the two—the other children were all wounded. This is a—it is a trap ’til today, which should be really cleared.

And we—the American government—Yemeni government should, first of all, apologize to what has been done. The American government should really apologize. They come—Mr. Obama should be brave enough to come and say openly, from his mouth, that he is apologizing that he killed the wrong people. Plus, I think the American government should be taken to court if they do not compensate those poor people, because nearly 46 were killed, and they lost everything. And there are many children who are now left without mothers and fathers.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, 46 killed. The U.S. has said they killed four U.S. citizens, announcing that after—what was it? Six hundred days after the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Anwar al-Awlaki. In the case of Majalah?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, so, I mean, in this—this strike, it was the opening salvo in the air war against Yemen that the Obama administration launched, and they kill these 46 people. Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, who we were just listening to, goes there with other tribal leaders, and they investigate the scene and realize that this wasn’t an al-Qaeda facility, but rather this small Yemeni village. I don’t know if it—maybe it was the case that the Yemeni government fed the United States bad intelligence and figured that no one would care about these people. We don’t know; it needs to be investigated. But what we do know is that Yemen was taking responsibility for the strike.

And part of the reason why the world learned that the United States was in fact bombing Yemen was because a Yemeni journalist named Abdulelah Haider Shaye traveled to al-Majalah, took photographs of the munitions, of the weapons that were strewn across the desert, showing that they were Tomahawk cruise missiles manufactured by General Dynamics and that cluster bombs, which are like flying land mines, had been used against al-Majalah. These are munitions that shred people into meat, as you hear Saleh bin Fareed describing his own experience of pulling people out of the rubble and not knowing if it was the flesh of an animal or the flesh of a human being. And this journalist exposes this for the world. Munitions experts, working with Amnesty International, determine that it only could have been—they only could have been U.S. weapons and that Yemen’s air force didn’t have these kinds of munitions.

And soon after he exposed the American role, which we now—it was confirmed in the WikiLeaks cables that it was indeed an American strike, this journalist was abducted and taken to the political security prison in Yemen and was beaten and told that if he didn’t stop talking about the U.S. attack on al-Majalah, that they were going to put him back in this prison. And he continued to talk about it. In fact, he, that night, went on Al Jazeera and said that the Yemeni regime had arrested him and beaten him and threatened him. And he continued talking about this. He also was interviewing Anwar Awlaki at a time when the United States government claimed it couldn’t find him. This journalist found him and interviewed him in late 2009, early 2010. And, you know, I’ve reviewed his journalism. This is a—this was a serious independent journalist who worked with major U.S. media outlets, The Washington Post and ABC News. And as he continued doing this reporting and interviewing people that were alleged to be terrorist leaders, or, in fact, in some cases, he interviewed the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Abdulelah Haider Shaye was then—had his house raided by Yemen’s American-trained counterterrorism unit. They disappeared him for 34 days, and then they brought him into a tribunal that had been set up by the dictator of Yemen specifically to prosecute journalists for committing crimes against the dictatorship. And they had him in a cage in the courtroom, and they charged that he was an al-Qaeda facilitator and that he was helping al-Qaeda to plot attacks. And he was then sentenced in this kangaroo court to five years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip. This is from your film, Jeremey. As you’re saying, in January 2011, a Yemeni state security court gives the journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a five-year jail sentence on terrorism-related charges, following this disputed trial that was condemned by a number of human rights and press freedom groups. While this isn’t in your film, this is what you got. Speaking from a caged cell in a Yemeni courtroom, Shaye tells reporters at his trial that he was arrested because he reported on the murders of women and children.

ABDULELAH HAIDER SHAYE: [translated] When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwa and Arhab, when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me. You noticed in the court how they have turned all of my journalistic contributions and quotations to international reporters and channels into accusations. Yemen, this is a place where the young journalist becomes successful, he is considered with suspicion.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, Abdulelah Haider Shaye. Where he is now?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, so he’s sentenced to five years in prison. He’s held in solitary confinement. There’s tremendous outcry—major human rights organizations around the world, media freedom organizations, tribal pressure from within Yemen on the dictator to release him. And Ali Abdullah Saleh was considering pardoning Abdulelah Haider Shaye. This court was used as an intimidation machine against journalists. They would do this often. They put them in, they tell them they’re going to be there for years, then they pardon them. And it’s a warning. It’s meant to stop real journalism from taking place in Yemen. So, word leaks in the Yemeni media that Abdulelah Haider Shaye is going to be pardoned by Ali Abdullah Saleh. That day, President Obama calls the dictator of Yemen and says that the United States is deeply concerned about reports that they’re going to release Abdulelah Haider Shaye. The pardon was torn up, and he remains in prison to this day. And, in fact—so he’s in prison because of President Obama’s direct intervention. In fact, Nasser Awlaki, when I was speaking to him the other day, told me about a message that had been smuggled out of the prison from Abdulelah Haider Shaye. And maybe he could tell people what that message said.

AMY GOODMAN: We just actually lost him.

JEREMY SCAHILL: So, the message from Abdulelah Haider Shaye was that he does not hold the American people responsible for his imprisonment. He holds President Obama personally responsible. He said in his text that was smuggled out, “There’s only one person in the world keeping me in prison, and that’s President Obama.”

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Eric Holder defended Obama’s targeted killing program when he testified just Thursday, yesterday, before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: It’s incorrect to say that it is only in the—it’s in the un—that the president has unlimited authority in this regard, with regard to the use of drones. And we’re talking about being more transparent. I sent a letter to Chairman Leahy. The president gave a speech to make more transparent our efforts in this regard. But we operate under the—the statute that Congress passed, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. And we also, when we are dealing with these matters, try to focus on capture, where possible. We focus on whether or not the threat is imminent. We also operate under the rules of law. And as the president said, I think, in his speech, people cannot plot against the United States, people cannot kill American citizens, and then use as a shield their American citizenship. These are steps that we take with great care. They are the most difficult of decisions that we have to make. They are the things that keep me up at night.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Eric Holder during a Senate hearing Thursday. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine went on to press Holder about why suspected terrorists are killed rather than captured.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I haven’t seen a preference for capture. If you compare the number of terrorist suspects who were captured in the previous administration versus this administration, there is a huge difference, as there is in the number of lethal strikes with drones that were undertaken. Is the reason for the exceedingly low number of captures due to the change in the Obama administration’s position on detention and the fact that the administration does not want to send captives to Guantánamo? Isn’t that really the reason? I mean, here we have a case of the terrorist Warsame, who ultimately was convicted, but who was driven around on a Navy ship for two months because there really was no place to put him.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: No, it is not a function of not trying to take people to Guantánamo. We have a—as you indicated, Warsame was captured. Abu Ghaith was captured and brought to face justice in an Article III court. The desire to capture is something that is something that we take seriously, because we gain intelligence.


ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Warsame, I’m not sure how—how long he was on that—on that boat. He was not—it was not a joyride for him. We were in the process of gathering important intelligence from him, from the intelligence community, and then, later on, after he was read his rights and waived them, from people in law enforcement. So that was time well spent, and I think ultimately led to his plea in that case or his conviction in that case. So it is not a function of us not trying to take prisoners to particular places. We try to capture people. We try to interrogate them. We try to gain intelligence. And then we try to bring them to justice.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve just been listening to Attorney General Eric Holder being questioned by Susan Collins, the senator from Maine. We are still joined by Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, joining us from the BBC studios in Britain, in Southampton. Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, what is the effect of the drone strikes on the people, overall, of Yemen?

SALEH BIN FAREED: Sorry? Say it again?

AMY GOODMAN: What is the effect of these drone strikes on the people, overall, of Yemen?

SALEH BIN FAREED: Unfortunately, nobody can explain this to the ordinary people. All of them, highly educated and ordinary people, are completely against this open sky for the Americans to strike anywhere in Yemen, and they hit anywhere. It is a big shame on our government to allow it. Unfortunately, 'til today, it is still happening. Every week or every two weeks, we will hear of attacks by the Americans on our citizens. Of course, nobody can prove if they are al-Qaeda or if they are not. But, in fact, this really made big—I mean, turned the people to be against the—completely against the American government. And they should really think twice about it, and they should stop it. And they should come bravely and say—and apologize for that. What they claim, that they are al-Qaeda, they can easily get them if they want them. They are—they are not far away. And they are everywhere, if they—but we don't know if they are al-Qaeda or not. Then why they don’t capture them instead of killing them? They can get any information from them. But they don’t do that at all. And I think our government is happy to play this role.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, you know, when I traveled in southern Yemen and interviewed tribal leaders, one thing that I heard repeatedly was people saying, you know, “You consider al-Qaeda terrorism. We consider your drones terrorism.” And these are tribal leaders that don’t have any love for al-Qaeda and would prefer them not to be in their areas. But there was a sense I got from talking to people that the strikes were emboldening people and encouraging them to not join al-Qaeda, but to look more sympathetically at al-Qaeda’s declared war against the United States, because there is this perception that the drones were hitting innocent civilians. And, I mean, one tribal leader said to me, “How is it that I can go into a restaurant in Shabwa province in Yemen and see Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Said al-Shihri, two of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, walking around openly, and the American drones can’t seem to find them, but they can find our children?” And he was saying, you know, “Look, if you keep doing this, you are going to push us all over the ledge.” And I think that what we’ve seen in Yemen, in particular, is that the United States is creating more new enemies than it is killing actual terrorists.

It’s not that terrorists have not been killed in these strikes—they have—you know, people that are involved in active plots against the United States. One of the guys who was implicated in the—involved with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Saleh Ali Nabhan, was killed by JSOC in Somalia in September of 2009 in an operation authorized by President Obama. He clearly was involved with blowing up two American embassies. In the case of Yemen, there are individuals that have engaged in attempts to bring down U.S. airplanes, have attempted to assassinate Saudi officials. It’s not that there aren’t those people there. It’s that the U.S. response has been to bomb based on bad intelligence, sometimes provided by the Yemeni government, sometimes provided by Saudis, and these strikes have ended up killing a tremendous number of innocent people who don’t have an actual connection to al-Qaeda. And I think that that’s part of what we’re seeing with the anger in Yemen, is this sense that the United States is not actually very effective at killing bona fide terrorists, but has been quite effective at killing civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to our guest. We have been left by Nasser al-Awlaki, but we are still joined by Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed in Southampton in Britain. And I had cut you off earlier, because we were ending the major broadcast, when you were talking about asking for evidence and not getting evidence in the killing of Anwar al-Awklaki. And I was wondering if you could continue to talk about that.

SALEH BIN FAREED: Well, as I have said earlier, I met ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh several times, and I asked him questions, if he got any proof against him. And he told me openly, “To be honest, we have nothing at Yemeni government against Anwar. We are proud of him. But we have been asked by the American government to put him in jail. And when we asked them to give us a proof, they said, 'Yes, we will try.'” And he said, “We kept corresponding with them from time to time, many, many times, and they could not give us any proof. And then, at the end, when we lost hope, we told them, 'Then why should we keep him?' They said, 'Please keep him, because he is a religious leader, and he is very popular, and many people listen to him in the Arab world and in America. And we want him to be kept in jail for a few years so that people can forget about him.'” Then I said to him, “Then, this is not the case. I mean, this poor man, he will lose his future. Please, I am his uncle, and his father, we request you to allow him out, if there is no proof.” He said, “In fact, to be honest, there is no proof whatsoever from the Americans. And we will allow him out if you guarantee him.” I said, “I will guarantee him.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes.” He asked his secretary to write a letter to sign, so that I guarantee him, and he will be kept in peace. And that’s what was done.

And also, I have met General Ghalib al-Qamish, who is still alive. And I asked him the same questions. And he said, “We have no proof against this man, except we have been asked by the Americans.” And he told me the same story as the president told me. And he told me, “Honestly, you should be really proud of Anwar. He is a great man. He is a great leader. We thought that he is a terrorist. But by having him in custody here, we learned from him more than we thought we would teach him.” And that is the case of Anwar. Anwar was killed because he was very promising young man. And as I said earlier, he was born to be a great leader. Unfortunately, they have killed him with no reason.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, your response?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, I think that—you know, look, the fact is that President Obama is posthumously prosecuting this American citizen. I mean, I want to stress, you know, in my investigation into it, there’s all sorts of smoke around Awlaki. And, to me, the key issue is, how do we deal with people that are being accused of reprehensible acts or of being engaged in plots? I mean, to me, it’s not about who Awlaki was; it’s about who we are as a society. You know, when you look at the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, all these calls for Jahar Tsarnaev to be treated as an enemy combatant, this young guy who’s in custody in connection with the bombing, or some calling for him to be sent to Guantánamo. I think, you know, over the past 12 years, the United States government has been able to roll back civil liberties in this country, to authorize an incredible executive power grab on the part of both Bush and Obama. And these assertions and these actions, these drone strikes, these assassination operations, are going to have far-reaching implications down the line. And so, to me, it’s more about the principle at play here and how we as a society—that’s how we’re defined, how we respond to those kinds of people, not how we respond to people that everyone perceives or knows are law-abiding citizens. So, those are the stakes in this for me, and in what I see.

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