How to Translate a News Story About A Drone Strike

Over the past three days, more than 50 suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been killed in a spate of mysterious attacks in Yemen. But what really happened? That very much depends on the news story you read. The Guardian attributed the attacks to "several air strikes — presumed to be ...

Senior Airman David Carbajal/DVIDS
Senior Airman David Carbajal/DVIDS

Over the past three days, more than 50 suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been killed in a spate of mysterious attacks in Yemen. But what really happened? That very much depends on the news story you read.

The Guardian attributed the attacks to "several air strikes — presumed to be carried out chiefly by U.S. drones." The Associated Press and Reuters both cited a statement from Yemen’s Ministry of Defense announcing the attack before noting that the United States has been known to use drone strikes in the area targeted this weekend, but both stopped short of saying the attacks were carried out by drones. These and other news stories leave room for the possibility that the attacks were carried out by the Yemeni Air Force — which is strange, given that Yemen has no credible way of carrying out such strikes with its crippled fleet of aircraft.

"The Yemenis were always big on the [drone] program and maintained the fiction for the longest time that it was the Yemeni Air Force that was doing it, these strikes," former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke told Foreign Policy in a recent interview.

The U.S. drone campaign in Yemen has been an open secret for years, despite the Yemeni government’s efforts to take credit for the airstrikes and Washington’s consistent refusals to comment on them. A now infamous Jan. 10, 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks describes a meeting between Gen. David Petraeus, then-head of the military’s Central Command, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which Saleh "welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs."

The cable goes on to explicitly describe the underhanded tactics employed by Yemen and the United States to mask the use of U.S. drones in Yemen:

"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 [Yemeni government].

Since 2002, it is estimated that the United States has carried out more than 100 strikes in Yemen, killing between 775 and 1,018 people, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. "A large part of the media, the mainstream media just sort of bought it for a long time," Clarke said. "‘Oh yes, the Yemenis’ air force was doing this.’ The Yemeni Air Force can hardly get a plane off the ground."

Yemen has a fleet of 79 combat aircraft, but they are plagued by parts shortages and equipment malfunctions. Last month, BuzzFeed reported that the U.S. military was considering sending armed crop dusters to Yemen to give the Yemeni Air Force the capability to carry out missile strikes — but even if the United States did send these durable, easy-to-fly planes to Yemen, they would be flown with American co-pilots, according to the proposal.

Even the Yemeni government, now led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s former vice president, has admitted its role in the drone campaign. In a Sept. 2012 interview with the Washington Post, Hadi said that he personally approved every U.S. drone strike on Yemeni soil.

Nonetheless, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense persists in its policy of not attributing a source to the airstrikes or claiming them as Yemeni operations, and the U.S. government still does not comment on strikes carried out by the CIA or the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

As a result, initial reporting about U.S. drone strikes remains mired in frustrating innuendoes and code words. Here at FP, we want to help. So here’s how to translate drone reporting into English.

Reports of airstrikes against AQAP targets in Yemen typically do not identify the nationality of the aircraft that launched the strike. They do so not because the United States will not confirm or deny that its aircraft carried out the strike. Though this often hints at the long-standing false reports that the Yemeni government conducted the strike, the Yemeni Air Force is virtually incapable of conducting airstrikes. Reliably, these strikes prove to have been conducted by the United States.

Suspected al Qaeda militants
The (U.S.) airstrikes over the weekend killed "suspected militants." But those suspected militants have at times proven to have been something else, as when, on Dec. 12, 2013, a U.S. drone strike targeted a wedding convoy that had been mistaken for AQAP fighters. After that botched strike, the pace of U.S. strikes in Yemen slowed dramatically — until the release of the AQAP video last month, which was followed by a strike on April 1 and the series of strikes this weekend.

The White House has a broad definition for who counts as a "suspected al Qaeda militant." According to a 2012 New York Times report, White House policy "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." At least 81 civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in
Yemen, according the Peter Bergen, director of the International Security Program at the New America Foundation.

Senior al Qaeda leaders
Many reports, including some published about these most recent strikes, suggest that the strikes targeted senior figures in AQAP. But out of 753 to 965 AQAP casualties inflicted by U.S. drone strikes, only about a dozen have been senior figures in the organization, according to estimates by the New America Foundation.

While drone strikes have killed AQAP’s deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, and its chief propagandist, American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, other notable figures, many of whom have fought with AQAP since it was reconstituted in 2009, remain at large. Even when the United States has claimed to have killed some of the group’s senior leaders, they have had a habit of reappearing alive months later.

The bottom-line: Take initial reports about American drone strikes with a large grain of salt.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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