When is a war not a war? Yemen!

Editor’s Note – When is a war not a war? Nine years of pounding Yemen apparently does not constitute a war. Whether it began as a by-product of the “War On Terror” or the renamed Obama version: “Overseas Contingency Operation”, its still warfare. The armed forces of the USA and our covert CIA have been quite busy under the Obama watch.

How does this jive with the rhetoric prior to Obama taking the helm in 2009? Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan… but NOT Syria…? Assassinations, targeted drone strikes, heavy gunships, naval launches…

Arab spring brings steep rise in US attacks in Yemen

by 

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Covert US strikes against alleged militants in Yemen have risen steeply during the Arab spring, and are currently at the same level as the CIA’s controversial drone campaign in Pakistan, a new study by the Bureau reveals.

At least 26 US military and CIA strikes involving cruise missiles, aircraft, drones or naval bombardments have taken place in the volatile Gulf nation to date, killing hundreds of alleged militants linked to the regional al Qaeda franchise. But at least 54 civilians have died too, the study found.

In the latest attack, US drones struck three areas of the rebel-held city of Zinjibar on March 22, killing up to 30 al Qaeda-linked militants, according to Yemen intelligence officials. Naval vessels – possibly American – also bombarded the city.

The missile strike ‘targeted vehicles and bases of the al Qaeda group. A lot of people were apparently killed and their vehicles were completely destroyed at the scene’, eyewitnesses told news agency Xinhua.

At least five US attacks – some involving multiple targets – have so far taken place in Yemen this month alone, in support of a government offensive to drive militants from key locations. In comparison, Pakistan’s tribal areas, the epicentre of the CIA’s controversial drone war, have seen just three US drone strikes in March.

The recent surge in attacks appears linked to the appointment of the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In his inauguration speech he called for ‘the continuation of war against al-Qaida as a religious and national duty.’

Despite multiple confirmed reports of American military action in Yemen, the US rarely acknowledges its secret war. A State Department spokesperson, speaking on background terms, would this week say only: ‘I refer you to the Government of Yemen for additional information on its counterterrorism efforts.’

Hundreds killed
A detailed examination of US military activity in Yemen over nine years reveals that most attacks – as many as 35 – have taken place after May 2011, as Arab spring-related protests gripped the country.

Total US attacks 26 – 44 (some multiple) with up to 34 since May 2011
Total killed 275 – 516
Civilians reported killed 54-104

All but one of the strikes have taken place under President Obama, who has taken a personal interest in the Yemen campaign. By the time he came to office al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had grown to become, in his words, ‘a network of violence and terror’ that had attracted a number of US citizens to its cause, including radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

AQAP even began publishing online propaganda magazines in English, and was behind a number of attempted terrorist attacks against the US, the UK and their allies.

With the CIA heavily engaged in Iraq and Pakistan, the job of crushing AQAP was handed to the Pentagon’s elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – the same unit that had captured Saddam Hussein and would later kill Osama bin Laden.

But from the start, JSOC’s operations were mired in controversy.

Acting on intelligence that an AQAP meeting was taking place in the southern Yemen desert on December 17 2009, JSOC launched at least one cruise missile loaded with cluster bombs at the gathering. A Yemen parliamentary commission later found that 14 alleged militants died in the attack. But so too did 44 civilians.

The massacre the United States won’t admit or deny

A copy of the commission report obtained by the Bureau identifies by name all of the civilians killed, which include five pregnant women and 22 children, the youngest just a year old. Eight families were effectively wiped out, the commission found, although it did not attribute blame to either US or Yemen forces.

A secret massacre
Two years on, the US will neither confirm or deny whether any investigation into those deaths has taken place, or if any compensation has been paid to the families of victims. The Pentagon, Centcom, the State Department and US Senate Armed Services Committee all declined to comment on the matter this week.

A spokesman for Sheikh Himir Al-Ahmar, the commission’s chairman and now Yemen’s deputy speaker, told the Bureau: ‘The families of the victims were indeed paid appropriate compensation by the Yemeni Government (according to the standard of compensations given out to victims in Yemen). The American authorities did not get involved in this process in any way.’

In contrast, affected families of a killing spree carried out by a US soldier in Afghanistan recently received $50,000 (£31,500) for each victim.

The US refusal to acknowledge the attack is undermined by a secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealing that then-Centcom chief General David Petraeus – now director of the CIA – and Yemen’s president and prime minister at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh had sought to hide the US’s role in the incident.

According to the secret cable, ‘[President] Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are “not very accurate” and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.’

Amnesty International, which carried out its own investigation into the December 2009 attack, said this week that the US failure to investigate credible reports of civilian deaths was troubling.

‘With an increase in such operations in places like Yemen, unless one gets to the bottom of who was killed, why, and what precautions were taken to protect civilians, then there is a risk such mistakes will be repeated in the future,’ said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East programme.

There have been other Pentagon errors too. When its elite Special Forces hit a supposed militant convoy in May 2010, they instead killed the region’s popular deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani. That error led to a year-long pause in US attacks, after local tribes strongly protested.

It took the chaos of the Arab Spring to see the US return to the offensive. As Yemen’s people revolted against President Saleh and his cronies, JSOC and CIA drones took to the skies, supplemented by US naval and air assets. President Obama has been fighting an almost unreported war in Yemen ever since.

Yemen’s ramshackle air force
At least 20 US strikes have taken place in Yemen since May 2011, the Bureau understands. The actual number may be as high as 34. But reports are often confused, with the US and Yemen governments unwilling to clarify events.

There are also claims that the Yemen Air Force carries out some precision strikes. Yet an investigation of its capabilities reveals it to be a ramshackle, low-tech outfit, wracked by the recent political unrest.

‘Barely functional’ – why US is likely to be behind Yemen’s precision strikes

Alan Warnes, chief correspondent at defence publication AirForces Monthly, says Yemen’s air force is incapable of precision or night-time attacks: ‘The only aircraft they have capable of night flying would be quite antiquated fighters. I think it’s the Americans who are doing it rather than the Yemenis.’

Recent close co-operation between the CIA and JSOC does appear to be paying off. Some two dozen named Al Qaeda militants and their associates have died since last spring, with the group under almost constant attack. Civilian deaths are also now reportedly rare – although there have been further errors.

Obama’s greatest success in Yemen came on September 30 last year, when two US citizens were among four high-value militants killed. Anwar al Awlaki, the radical preacher, died with Samir Khan, editor of AQAP’s English-language propaganda magazine Inspire.

Days later a follow-up attack killed other militants – but also Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and 17-year-old nephew. AQAP’s ability to speak to an English-language audience was apparently destroyed, possibly terminally. Yet these deaths of American citizens continue to generate significant controversy in the US.

Holder testifies on legal rationale for targeting citizens overseas

Editor’s Note – Holder is once again scheduled to testify before a hearing panel to explain why the CIA at the behest of unknowns, created a kill list of Americans in foreign lands.

Holder used legal language that was likely re-formatted to justify carrying out the killing of American citizens without due process, much less allowing interrogations that would reveal more key intelligence on terror networks. Where is the oversight of these subjective legal decisions by this administration, especially over Eric Holder.

Holder expected to explain targeting US citizens abroad

By Sari Horwitz and Peter Finn

Stock Image - Drone fires on target similar to Yemen Awlaki Attack

Originally posted in the Washington Post

Fort Meade Leader

Attorney General Eric Holder is expected Monday to provide the most detailed explanation yet of the Obama administration’s secret decision-making leading up to the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen last year in Yemen.

The Justice Department wrote a still-classified memo that provided the legal rationale for the targeting of American-born Anwar al-Awlaki that also included intelligence material about his operational role within al-Qaida’s affiliates in Yemen.

Holder is expected to say that the killing of Awlaki was legal under the 2001 congressional authorization of the use of military force and that the United States, acting in self-defense, is not limited to traditional battlefields in pursuit of terrorists who present an imminent threat, including U.S. citizens.

The official would only discuss the address on the condition of anonymity because it will not be released until shortly before Holder speaks.

Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico, was the chief of external operations for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, which has attempted a number of terrorist attacks on the United States, according to administration officials. He had been placed on “kill lists” compiled by the CIA and and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Awlaki was killed in September in Yemen in a joint CIA-JSOC drone operation.

The Awlaki operation was carried out after the administration requested and received an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel saying that targeting and killing U.S. citizens overseas was legal under domestic and international law.

Senior Obama administration officials, including John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser and Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, have given speeches that offered a broad rationale for U.S. drone attacks on individuals in al-Qaida and associated forces.

On Feb. 22, Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson gave a speech at Yale Law School, saying that the targeted killing of those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities against the United States, including U.S. citizens, is justified and legal. He did not mention al-Awlaki by name or the secret CIA drone program.

Monday will be the first time that the country’s chief law enforcement official discusses the legal justification for the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen. His remarks will be included in what administration officials are calling a major national security speech. The speech may not mention Awlaki by name, but it is expected to provide a more detailed explanation of the Justice Department’s reasoning.

Within the administration, there was some reluctance on the part of the intelligence community to engage with the subject at all publicly. But others argued that the killing of an American citizen by the U.S. government was such an extraordinary event that there had to be some public accounting.

Holder’s much-anticipated speech will also outline the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism and the rule of law, according to a source familiar with the address. Holder will discuss the broad new waivers that President Barack Obama issued last week that allow U.S. law enforcement agencies to retain custody of al-Qaida terrorism suspects rather than turn them over to the military.

Holder will also highlight the success of the civilian court system in the prosecutions and convictions of suspected terrorists. One case he is to cite as an example is the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to bring down a U.S. commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 by detonating a bomb hidden in his underwear. He was sentenced to life in prison last month.

Abdulmutallab was arrested by federal law enforcement agents, given his Miranda rights within an hour and processed through the civilian criminal justice system. Some Republican critics argued that Abdulmutallab should never have been advised of his rights to counsel and that the administration should have considered turning him over to the military to continue his interrogation.

But administration officials said they got the intelligence they needed from him immediately and later he provided further details on al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Some of that, including Awlaki’s operational role, was revealed at Abdulmutallab’s sentencing.

Prosecutors said Abdulmutallab was acting on the orders of Awlaki, which may have been a critical factor in the legal reasoning in the classified Justice memo justifying his killing.

Holder will also discuss the debate over whether terrorist suspects should be tried in federal criminal courts or military commissions. The administration argues that military commissions are appropriate for a small and select group of cases, but that they should have the ability to transfer some suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. for trial. Congress, however, has blocked such prosecutions.