Democracy Now! speaks with filmmaker Nawal Al-Maghafi about her BBC investigative report which reveals new details about how the United Arab Emirates hired American mercenaries to carry out over 100 assassinations in southern Yemen, targeting politicians, imams and members of civil society. Al-Maghafi interviewed several mercenaries for the first time on camera about how they conducted the targeted killings and trained others to run similar operations. “What we’ve seen is a systematic targeting campaign of … political activists, members of Al-Islah, civil society members,” says Al-Maghafi. “It’s just created a climate of fear in southern Yemen.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to another story out of Yemen. An investigative report by the BBC has revealed new details about how the United Arab Emirates hired American mercenaries to carry out more than 100 assassinations over a three-year period beginning in 2015. Targets included politicians, imams and members of civil society. The assassinations took place in southern Yemen in areas under the control of the internationally recognized government and were traced to members of a private U.S. security company called Spear Operations Group.
Before we speak with the BBC reporter who worked on the investigation, let’s go to a clip from her report that includes the first on-camera interviews with U.S. mercenaries hired by the UAE for targeted killings in Yemen.
DALE COMSTOCK: I’m going to fight the “global war on terror.” I’m going after bad people, evil people. When I get a chance to stamp out evil in this world, I love that. Sorry. I love hunting down bad guys and ending them.
ISAAC GILMORE: Driving from the base down into a city was actually incredibly beautiful. There’s this weird mix of excitement, fear and also an odd serenity. We wanted to make a statement, hence the choice to use a detonator and a bomb.
DALE COMSTOCK: I was actually surprised how dark it was. There were no lights. The roads were very tight and congested. You had people sitting on the street drinking chai. You had al-Qaeda on every street corner. As soon as the vehicle stops, the doors open, and it’s showtime. We already started taking fire. There’s people running. You can see the bullets bouncing off of everything. Everybody deployed. I ran around the back. And that was it.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: Would you say that it was a successful operation?
ISAAC GILMORE: Yes.
BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: The U.S. military launched another airstrike in Yemen.
CATHERINE BYARUHANGA: The U.S. and U.K. hit around 30 sites across Yemen.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: This film is about the complex roles Western and regional powers have played in Yemen’s war. And the story begins with an assassination mission.
Welcome. So, that’s your mic. Are you OK with putting it on?
ISAAC GILMORE: I’m sure I can manage.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: OK.
I first met Isaac Gilmore in 2020. He’s a former Navy SEAL who later became second-in-command of a private U.S. military firm called Spear Operations Group.
ISAAC GILMORE: Yeah, me, too. I want to be pretty.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: I was surprised Isaac agreed to speak to me, because at the time human rights lawyers were trying to prosecute Spear for war crimes.
ISAAC GILMORE: We make the choice to belong in things that matter. You’re not going to please everybody. There’s plenty of people that would be happy to say that I was on the wrong side of something. One of the reasons that I agreed to participate in this and be part of this documentary is to be very clear about what we were doing and why. This isn’t, you know, innocent 'til proven guilty; it's war. And so, you have intelligence, and then you make a decision to act on it.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the BBC investigative report on American mercenaries hired by the UAE to conduct assassinations in Yemen.
We’re joined now by the Yemeni British journalist who conducted the investigation, Nawal Al-Maghafi. She is a BBC Newsnight international correspondent and filmmaker. She’s been reporting on the Middle East since 2012, joining us today from Amman, Jordan.
Nawal, thank you so much for being with us. This is such an important investigation. Why don’t you lay out what you found?
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: So, basically, my investigation started at around 2015, really. I was in Yemen reporting from southern Yemen on the war that was going on there, on the humanitarian situation. But at the same time, I was hearing about these assassinations that were going on in southern Yemen, but no one knew who was responsible. And as the years went on, I kept hearing about these assassinations that were going on. They were rumored to be connected to, you know, groups affiliated to the UAE, but no one could prove it.
It wasn’t until a BuzzFeed article came out at around 2018, that speaks about Spear Operations Group, that we knew where to start, basically. So I reached out to Spear Operations Group, to their leader, Abraham Golan, to all the members, all the different mercenaries that worked for him, and, surprisingly, some of them actually got back to me. And that was our starting point.
And from then on, it was a four-year investigation. It started by speaking to these mercenaries, talking about the operations that they were a part of, and then speaking to victims on the ground, speaking to people who were trained by Emiratis in Yemen. And so, what we ended up finding was not only that Spear had conducted some assassinations; they trained Emirati soldiers, who then trained Yemenis. And what we’ve seen is a systematic targeting campaign of, like you said, political activists, members of al-Islah, civil society members. And, yeah, it’s just created a climate of fear in southern Yemen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, let’s go to another clip from your documentary. This is from your interview with Ansaf Mayo, a Yemeni member of parliament, who’s the leader of Islah, who was one of the people the mercenaries you spoke to tried to assassinate.
ANSAF MAYO: [translated] I left the office half an hour earlier than usual, around 9:40 p.m. I arrived home, and I heard an explosion. Moments later, some MPs called me. They asked if I was OK. I didn’t understand. I told them I was fine. It turned out a statement had come out online. It said I had been killed by a car bomb. That’s how I found out I was the target. I hadn’t realized until then.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: [translated] How did you feel when you found out?
ANSAF MAYO: [translated] I felt afraid for my family.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: Three years later, when the UAE’s drone footage was leaked to the international media, Ansaf found out that Spear had been hired to kill him.
ANSAF MAYO: [translated] What shocked me the most is that they’d sent foreign mercenaries to kill us in our own country. Why would they want to kill me? What moral and legal justification could there be to cross the ocean to kill me in Aden? Why? What am I guilty of?
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: Ansaf fled Yemen after the attack and now lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Nawal, if you could talk about what happened with him, why exactly he was targeted? And then, at the end of the film, where you tried to get one of the mercenaries, Isaac, to meet with him, he initially agreed to meet with him, but then didn’t show up. Explain what happened.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: So, I mean, you have two sides of Ansaf Mayo’s story, right? You have the version that Isaac Gilmore and Dale Comstock tell us, the two mercenaries that I interview in the film. And their story is that they had — you know, Isaac tells us about going to the UAE, pitching this idea that they were going to help with the UAE’s counterterror campaign in southern Yemen. And they were given a pack of cards that had targets. They believed they were terrorists. They were told they were terrorists. And so they pursue what they call the head of the snake, the head of the terrorist organization. Now, this organization is al-Islah. It is one of Yemen’s biggest political organizations. It was founded in 1990. It’s a Sunni Islamist movement. It’s not a terrorist organization. And Ansaf Mayo was the leader of al-Islah in Aden. He was their first target. Isaac tells us that they were told, you know, “If you pursue this target and if you’re successful in assassinating him, we’ll then give you the contract to pursue other targets.” So, they take — they say they do their own intelligence. They pursue Ansaf Mayo. It’s their first operation. They go to the al-Islah headquarters in Aden. They plant a bomb. There’s shooting that happens. And they film this using a drone, you know, as they’re doing it. And they believe, in that moment, that they were successful, that they had killed Ansaf Mayo.
But then you hear Ansaf Mayo’s side of the story. You know, he had — and we also spoke to the people that were with Ansaf Mayo on that day. And they had a gathering. They were talking about music. He left a few minutes earlier, before the building was attacked. And the eyewitnesses we spoke to told us they heard Americans outside the building, but they just couldn’t believe what they heard. They couldn’t believe that this operation involved Americans, so they just kind of let it go. And later, when the news story would come out and the drone footage would be leaked, they had realized that, in fact, American mercenaries were involved in trying to assassinate Ansaf Mayo.
When I interviewed Isaac Gilmore for the first time in 2020, he still didn’t know that it wasn’t a successful operation, that they actually hadn’t killed Ansaf Mayo. I knew that, because I had had telephone conversations with Ansaf, and we were planning to do the interview. And so, I really wanted him to not only, you know, find out that he wasn’t successful, that Ansaf was in fact still alive, but I wanted him to meet him, because he had built up this idea that he was targeting this awful terrorist, and that was not the person that I got to know over the years in Ansaf Mayo. He is a really kind man. He is very kind of balanced in his views, a politician, member of parliament, someone who has played a role in the peace process in Yemen with the United Nations. And so, I didn’t want Isaac to just hear it from me; I wanted him to meet him for himself. And Ansaf was totally up for it, and Isaac agreed to meet Ansaf, but, unfortunately, even though he told me he had gone on his flight, he didn’t come to London, and Ansaf was stood up.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain, these U.S. mercenaries, where they came from in the military, whether they’re Green Berets, etc.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: So, it was a combination. So, for example, Isaac is an ex-Navy SEAL. So is Dale Comstock, but he’s also a Green Beret. We also spoke to some French Legionnaires off camera. You know, we spoke to a few who had different backgrounds but didn’t want to go on the record. It was only Isaac and Dale that agreed to go on the record.
AMY GOODMAN: They’re paid like $1.5 million a month for their assassination campaign?
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: Exactly. I mean, that’s what we were told by Isaac. He said that they were — the offer they were given is if you’re successful in assassinating Ansaf Mayo, the contract was $1.5 million a month. And then, what we end up finding, you know, Isaac and Dale actually left Spear quite early on. They had left Yemen at around 2016. And initially, when we first started this investigation, we thought that that’s where it ended, that, you know, it wasn’t very successful, and that was it.
But then we found this financial document that we were told was from the UAE, and it had amounts that were transferred to pay for Spear Operation Group up until 2020. And so we felt like there was a part of the puzzle missing. We kept looking into what they could have possibly done after 2016. And that’s when we found out about the training, that Spear Operation Group had trained Emirati soldiers in these tactics. And then, that went further on with Emirati soldiers then training Yemeni members of the Counterterrorism Section of the STC, that would then carry out assassinations.
And what we saw is, as Emiratis trained Yemenis, there was an uptick in assassinations, because it was even harder to pinpoint who was responsible for them when it was Yemenis carrying them out, because they just blended in when they were on the streets. It was a lot more difficult for eyewitnesses to pinpoint who was responsible, especially in a place like Aden, which is so chaotic. You know, it’s a war zone right now. It’s really difficult to point of finger at who’s carrying out these assassinations.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: OK, well, let’s go to another clip of your report about — this one about human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari, who investigated human rights abuses committed by the UAE-backed forces, who then targeted her son.
HUDA AL-SARARI: [translated] That day, I was at home. Mohsen went out with a group of friends. He was shot and wounded. Mohsen was shot from the front. It wasn’t stray bullets or crossfire. It seemed deliberate.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: After a month in intensive care, Mohsen died. He was 18. Eyewitnesses told the prosecutor that they recognized the gunman as a member of a counterterrorism unit funded by the UAE, but nobody was charged.
HUDA AL-SARARI: [translated] After his death, I spent a long time at home grieving. After I went back to work, I started receiving death threats again. “Haven’t you had enough? Does your other son need to be killed before you back down?” After that, I left Aden.
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: [translated] Who do you think was responsible for killing your son?
HUDA AL-SARARI: [translated] Those responsible for killing Mohsen and many other young men are those who were in charge of our security at the time: the UAE.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Yemeni human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari. Her 18-year-old son was killed. And actually, Nawal, we’d like you to clarify whether you were able to conclusively establish that it was the Spear Operations Group that was responsible for his killing, and then talk — we just have a minute — about what kinds of cases are being brought against the special operations — the Spear Operations Group. Since the group is registered in the U.S., is here where they should be prosecuted?
NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: I believe so. I know that there are two human rights organizations who are working on a case against not only Spear Operations Group, but those who funded this type of, you know, warfare, basically. But one of the things we struggled with is figuring out the legality of their operations. You know, mercenary warfare is very new. It’s a very gray area. It’s not black and white when it comes to whether it’s illegal or not.
But Isaac seemed quite confident in saying that what they did was legal. You know, I did ask him whether Washington knew what they were doing. He said no. But he seemed to believe that the fact that they were working for a U.S. ally and that these were counterterrorism operations, in his view, meant that what they were doing was legal. And that’s why he was quite open with us and happy to talk to us. But yeah, I don’t have a clear answer for that one. I think it will be interesting to see what happens next.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we encourage everyone to watch the documentary. Nawal Al-Maghafi, we want to thank you so much for being with us, BBC Newsnight international correspondent and filmmaker who’s been reporting on the Middle East for over a decade. We’ll link to your new investigation called “American mercenaries hired by UAE to kill in Yemen.”
Coming up, on this first day of Black History Month, we speak to Dr. Uché Blackstock about Legacy, her new book, about a Black physician reckoning with racism in medicine. Back in 20 seconds.