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Turning a Wedding Into a Funeral: U.S. Drone Strike in Yemen Killed as Many as 12 Civilians

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Human Rights Watch has revealed as many as 12 civilians were killed in December when a U.S. drone targeted vehicles that were part of a wedding procession going toward the groom’s village outside the central Yemeni city of Rad’a. According to HRW, “some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians” and not members of the armed group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as U.S. and Yemeni government officials initially claimed. The report concluded that the attack killed 12 men, between the ages of 20 and 65, and wounded 15 others. It cites accounts from survivors, relatives of the dead, local officials and news media reports. We speak to Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler, who wrote the report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen,” and Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of the TheIntercept.org, a new digital magazine published by First Look Media. He is the producer and writer of the documentary film, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” which is nominated for an Academy Award.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A new report has revealed that a U.S. drone strike that killed at least a dozen people in Yemen in December failed to comply with rules imposed by President Obama last year to protect civilians. The strike was carried out by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command and targeted vehicles that were part of a wedding procession going towards the groom’s village outside the central Yemeni city of Rad’a. According to the Human Rights Watch investigation, quote, “some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians” and not members of the armed group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as U.S. and Yemeni government officials initially claimed. The report concluded that the attack killed 12 men between the ages of 20 and 65 and wounded 15 others. It cites accounts from survivors, relatives of the dead, local officials and news media reports.

One of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed in Yemen was Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi of Yakla. He described the scene on the day the wedding procession was attacked on December 12, 2013. His son, Ali Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, was killed in that drone strike.

ABDULLAH MUHAMMAD AL-TISI: [translated] We were having a traditional marriage ceremony. According to our traditions, the whole tribe has to go to the bride’s tribe. We were in about 12 to 15 cars with 60 to 70 men on board. He had lunch at the bride’s village at Al Abu Saraimah. Then we left to head back to the groom’s village.

A drone was hovering overhead all morning. There were one or two of them. One of the missiles hit the car. The car was totally burned. Four other cars were also struck. When we stopped, we heard the drone fire. Blood was everywhere, and the people killed and injured were scattered everywhere. The area was full of blood, dead bodies and injured people. I was injured. I saw the missile hit the vehicle behind the car my son was driving.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Was it your car?

ABDULLAH MUHAMMAD AL-TISI: [translated] It was my own car. I went there to check on my son. I found his body thrown from the car. I turned him over, and he was dead. He was already dead.

I didn’t see any al-Qaeda militants in the procession, and no one from the area is a member of al-Qaeda. The Yemeni government gave us 100 Kalashnikovs and 34 million Yemeni rials, nearly $159,000 U.S., according to tribal tradition. According to tribal tradition, this alone is an admission of guilt, and the money was an admission of guilt. The money was for the burial of the dead and the treatment of the injured. The U.S. government made a big mistake. They killed innocent people. This was a serious crime. They turned many kids into orphans, many wives into widows. Many were killed, and many others were injured, although everyone was innocent.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi talking about the U.S. drone strike in December that killed his son. All of this comes as the White House is reportedly considering using a drone to kill a U.S. citizen living in Pakistan who’s allegedly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

For more, we’re joined right now by Letta Tayler, senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch. She wrote the new report titled “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen.”

We’re also joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, as well as the producer of and the co-writer of the documentary that’s been nominated for an Oscar, Dirty Wars.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Letta, you just recently came back from Yemen, came out with this report. Talk about its findings.

LETTA TAYLER: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.

What we found is that this strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen killed 12 people, injured 15, including the bride, who received a superficial face wound. And we have serious concerns that the strike not only may have violated international law, but also flies in the face of President Obama’s policies on targeted killings. The president has said the U.S. does not strike unless it has near certainty that no civilians were killed, yet the evidence strongly suggests that at least some of those killed in this strike, and possibly all of them, were civilians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, could you talk to us about what your research involved in producing the report? And also, you seem to have found contradictions between what national Yemeni officials were saying and what local provincial or officials closer to the ground were saying.

LETTA TAYLER: Yes, indeed, there are a mind-boggling array of on, off and on-the-record comments about this strike, which really underscores the urgent need for the United States to come clean on what exactly happened. I researched this strike in Yemen. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Yemen in recent years, many of those trips to look at this particular issue of targeted killings. I met with relatives and family members there, as well as government officials, academics, journalists and so forth. The most compelling testimony, of course, was from the family members—as you’ve seen in the video, men holding tattered ID cards of their loved ones, in some cases the only remaining item that they had of these people who died, and saying to me, “Explain to me, explain to me why did the U.S. kill my son, why did the U.S. kill my nephew.” Even the—even the son of the groom from a previous marriage was killed in this strike. And these Yemenis deserve answers from the United States as to what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: What has the U.S. said?

LETTA TAYLER: The U.S. has responded to my report in a fashion that I find disappointing and disconcerting. We are getting more of the same obfuscation. We’re getting more off-the-record comments to media that, yes, this strike did hit, that the targets of the strike were militants. But where is the evidence? Show us the proof. Show us the findings of your reports. If indeed militants were killed, let us judge the facts. Let us see if you’re complying with law and with your own policy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the government did claim that there was a particular militant that they were looking to kill, but then his name did not appear in the list of the dead, right?

LETTA TAYLER: Yes, Shawqi al-Badani. He was not among the 12 names that were given to me, the 12 bodies that were identified by relatives as well as other media in Yemen. And indeed, the relatives I spoke to said they never heard of this man.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, in Dirty Wars, you go to Yemen. You investigate a number of drone strikes. Talk about how this one fits in, the December attack that is now—we’re talking about, of the Human Rights Watch report.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, I mean, what I think is really key here that Letta and the team at Human Rights Watch have really zeroed in on is that when there are—when there’s these strikes and civilians are killed, the Obama administration has stated that they do a review, that they do an investigation. And indeed, these anonymous officials have been saying to major media outlets that they did an internal investigation and that the Department of Defense determined that the individuals that were killed were in fact legitimate combatants. And yet, those reports are never made public.

In the cases that I’ve investigated in Yemen, one of which was the al-Majalah bombing that you referenced, it was the first time that we know of that President Obama authorized a military-style attack inside of Yemen. And that wasn’t a drone attack; it was actually a cruise missile attack. And it killed three dozen—more than three dozen people, the overwhelming majority of whom were women and children. There supposedly was an internal investigation into that, and yet the White House won’t release it. The Pentagon will not release these investigations that they do. In the case of the drone bombings of Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen, and then his 16-year-old son two weeks later in a separate drone strike, again they said that there was an internal investigation into the killing of this boy. The findings of it are not released.

And what we’re seeing right now, and we’ve talked about this a lot on the show, boils down to the Obama administration trying to wage what it perceives—what it believes is, you know, pre-emptive war or preventative strikes, where they’re killing people that they think may one day pose a threat, or they may have picked up chatter that they’ve been discussing some kind of a plot. And there’s no—not even a sort of vague idea that we should have any kind of a law enforcement approach to the crime of terrorism anymore. They’re just zapping people, you know, in acts of precrime. The idea of judicial process or legal process has been replaced by the National Security Agency tracking the metadata of individuals in various countries, building profiles of where—what telephones are in contact with other telephones, where particular SIM cards have been physically or geographically. And then you have a secret process in the White House on these so-called Terror Tuesday meetings where officials essentially condemn the users of these SIM cards or phones to death, and then President Obama signs off, and the drone serves as the executioner. That’s basically the judicial process that the U.S. now offers to people who are actually not even accused of the crime of terrorism, just perceived by the White House to be involved with it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jeremy, you’ve mentioned President Obama’s direct involvement in—of this. I want to turn to him speaking about drone strikes during the first major counterterrorism address of his second term. His comments came one day after Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed U.S. drone strikes had killed four American citizens in Yemen and Pakistan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set. Yes, the conflict with al-Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama. Letta?

LETTA TAYLER: I wanted to point out one thing in this speech. He said, “We’re targeting those who want to get us, not those they hide among.” There is one theory about this December 12th strike on the wedding convoy, that members of AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group, may have infiltrated the convoy. If this is true—and I have no idea that it is; we have no evidence one way or the other that AQAP was actually in this convoy, but let’s assume for the moment that this might be correct—that shielding—it’s called human shielding—for AQAP to go into the convoy, would not excuse or exonerate the—excuse the—would not give the United States the right to attack that convoy. The United States as an attacking force always has to distinguish between civilians and combatants. And by combatants, I mean lawful targets. We have a lot of questions as to whether many of the people being killed who the U.S. considers militants are actually lawful targets. So, even if AQAP was hiding among these forces, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that that strike was lawful.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who just came out with this report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen.” What are the implications of this report? And what has the U.S. said to you? Have other countries gotten in touch with you?

LETTA TAYLER: Well, the implications of this report are first that we’re still operating in a vast accountability vacuum. The United States is saying, “Trust us,” yet they’re not giving us any information that would allow us to trust them. And this sets a very—not only does this mean that the U.S. may well be violating international law and President Obama’s own policy, but it sets a very dangerous precedent for countries around the world. I don’t find it surprising that journalists from Russia and China call us, frequently, when we come out with a report like this, because there are many leaders in many countries who are very happy to see the U.S. pave the way for taking out people without any justification, anytime, anywhere, and simply calling them terrorists or threats to national security.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jeremy, have we seen any movement at all on the part of the administration, given all of the—all of the publicity that has come out about these strikes now, or even in terms of Congress attempting to rein in the policies of the administration?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, Congress is almost entirely asleep at the wheel when it comes to oversight or raising serious questions about the drone program or the assassination policy in general. I mean, the most vocal critics of this program, who have raised some of the essential questions, are people like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who on many issues really sounds like a raving lunatic, but on this particular issue, when he filibustered the nomination of John Brennan, who really was the drone czar of the Obama administration’s first term, Rand Paul read into the congressional record human rights reports, media reports about civilians killed. It was the first time that there was discussion on the floor of the U.S. Senate of American citizens potentially being targeted for assassination in these drone strikes.

But, you know, polls indicate that a solid percentage of self-identified liberal Democrats support the White House on this, and that’s in part due to the fact that President Obama has projected—and it really boils down to propaganda—that this is somehow a cleaner way of waging war. I think also, politically, many Democrats would be opposing these policies or raising serious questions if their guy wasn’t in the White House. If McCain or Mitt Romney had won those elections, I think we would see a more robust discussion in Congress on this.

But President Obama said in his major address, and then his administration has released papers saying that among the standards is not just that mere certainty that civilians will not be killed, but also that the individuals that they’re targeting represent an imminent threat and that they—and that capture is not feasible. And I think that those two factors in this should also be investigated, because I don’t believe that the majority of the people that are killed in these drone strikes are engaged in an imminent plot that’s going to harm America’s national security or American interests, even as broadly as the Obama administration defines it.

I mean, we really—this should be brought up at an international level, because the U.S., as Letta says, is setting a standard. There are some 80 countries in the world that have weaponized drone technology. It’s just a matter of time before a Russia or a China says, “You know what? America does this. We have the right to do it, too,” and they start doing drone attacks to take out dissidents or people that they perceive to be terrorists.

Every nation around the world now claims that it’s in a war against terrorism. I was just in Egypt, where the U.S.-backed dictatorship of General Sisi is in power, and there are huge posters all over Egypt that talk about how the Egyptian government is in a war against terrorism. It’s really a cooptation of this Bush-Cheney idea, that Obama unfortunately has continued, that if you just label your enemies as terrorists, you can justify doing anything to them and justify denying them of any basic rights. You can’t surrender to a drone, and you can’t turn yourself in when you haven’t been charged with a crime. To what authority do you surrender?

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, a new digital magazine published by First Look Media, also the producer and writer of the documentary Dirty Wars , which has been nominated for an Oscar. Congratulations, Jeremy, and good luck on your road to the Oscars, which will be on March 2nd. And Letta Tayler, senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch. Her report, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral: US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen,” we’ll link to at democracynow.org.

This is the 18th birthday of Democracy Now!, and in our breaks, we are showing folks and encouraging people to go to our website at democracynow.org and submit pictures of yourself holding up signs that say, “I need Democracy Now! because…” and you fill in the rest or send us videos, as well. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Patti Smith, “People Have the Power,” and I thank all the people from all over the world who are sending in pictures and videos letting us know what you think. Again, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. And I’m also thinking today about Julie Drizin, who was the first producer of Democracy Now!, and also our colleague Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is in Cairo, in Egypt, and our colleagues Anjali Kamat and Nicole Salazar and so many others who make—helped make this program great, as well as Kris Abrams out there in Colorado. Well, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’ve been with you for 18 years, as we turn to another story.

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