Germany Could Have Delivered Justice for Civilian Drone Strike Victims. It Failed.

Missiles remotely fired with the assistance of a U.S. base on German soil killed my family in Yemen, but neither German nor U.S. courts are willing to hold anyone accountable.

A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a U.S. drone on Dec. 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.
A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a U.S. drone on Dec. 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Eight years after my brother-in-law and nephew were blown to pieces by a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. drone, I am still fighting for answers.

When a German court found in my favor last year, it looked like we might finally be able to bring some accountability to the U.S. drone program. But on Nov. 25, Germany’s Federal Administrative Court ruled that despite an earlier court’s finding that the U.S. military’s Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany had played a “central role” in drone strikes in Yemen that result in “civilian casualties on a regular basis,” Germany has no obligation to do more than lodge diplomatic protests, encouraging the U.S. government to act lawfully.

It is hard for me to describe how I felt when my lawyer called with the news. I have become accustomed to setbacks, but this loss was particularly devastating. It has left me wondering if anyone will ever be held responsible for the damage U.S. drone strikes are inflicting on Yemen.

Since my visit to Washington in 2013, I have been asking the same simple question: “How is it that two innocent men, who actively opposed terrorism, were killed?” Well-meaning politicians in the United States, Europe, and my home country of Yemen have listened to my story and expressed their sympathy, but no one has provided an answer.

I filed a lawsuit in the Higher Administrative Court in Münster, Germany, and in March 2019 received a small measure of recognition when the court found the U.S. drone program in Yemen to be unlawful. The court also ruled that Germany bears responsibility for strikes like the one that killed my relatives, because the drones cannot fly without the support of Ramstein Air Base. The base plays a critical role by enabling communication between pilots in the United States and the drones flying in countries such as Yemen.

In 2019, a court ruled that Germany bears responsibility for strikes like the one that killed my relatives, because the drones can’t fly without the support of Ramstein Air Base, which enables communication between pilots in the United States and the drones flying in  Yemen.

This was, believe it or not, the first time a court anywhere in the Western world had been willing to weigh in. The U.S. military will not confirm or deny that it fired the missile, and when I challenged this silence in U.S. federal court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that I did not have standing to do so, because only Congress can question the president’s political decision to kill people in secret by remote control. Judge Janice Rogers Brown called congressional oversight of the military a “joke” and warned of the “outsized power” of the president’s authority to kill, but the case was tossed out.

The German court’s ruling in March 2019 was also the first time one of the United States’ international partners was judged to be potentially complicit in its global assassination program. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnès Callamard, called it a “watershed” decision that brings the U.S. government’s legal justification of lethal drone strikes into question.

Now even this small victory has been taken from us. By declaring Ramstein’s role in the program merely “technical,” the Federal Administrative Court in effect absolved Germany of any responsibility for what happens on its territory. In fact, the air base performs an essential function in strikes like the one that killed my relatives, as U.S. drones depend on the satellite connections it provides.

My village, Khashamir, is not a war zone now, and it was not a war zone in August 2012, when my relatives were struck by U.S. missiles. There are militants operating in the region, members of al Qaeda, but they are outsiders with little support in the community.

My brother-in-law, Salem, was an imam, dedicated to mobilizing the community against al Qaeda. After he gave a sermon explaining that there can be no religious or legal justification for attacks on civilians, three young men from outside the village asked to meet him. He agreed, believing strongly that words, not weapons, solve problems.

To this day, we do not know who the men were or what they wanted. Salem was conscious, though, that the sermon he had recently delivered may have angered some people. So he took his nephew, Waleed, a policeman, along for protection. He had no way of knowing that the threat he faced came not from those he was meeting but from the U.S. drone hovering overhead.

Was the United States targeting one of the men he met? Did the pilot even know whom he was firing on? Because the U.S. government will not say, we simply do not know—all we have is a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, sent within hours of the strike, saying a mistake had been made and innocent people had been killed.

I was eating dinner with my family when the missiles struck, less than a mile away. It was as if the mountain had fallen. We rushed out and were confronted by a horrific scene. We initially had no idea our relatives were among the victims; the missiles are so powerful that nothing resembling a human being was left. But after talking to eyewitnesses and collecting scraps of clothing and burnt flesh, we realized the awful truth.

I have learned a lot about armed drones in my long search for justice, and I now know that the attack has the hallmarks of what’s known as a “signature strike.” This is when the drone pilot does not know who they are trying to kill, merely that the person targeted is exhibiting a pattern of “suspicious” behavior. Often this pattern comes from metadata collected from mobile phones. As one drone pilot said: “We’re going after … phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”

Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur, sets out data in her report showing the scale of unacknowledged civilian casualties from armed drones. For example, from 2009-2014 in Yemen, in attempting to kill 17 extremists, the U.S. drone program also killed 273 innocent men, women, and children.

The casualty monitoring group Airwars released new findings in October showing that under the Trump administration, U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have killed at least 86 civilians, including 28 children. The United States has stopped even admitting to the strikes: The last one acknowledged by U.S. Central Command was in mid-2019. Since then, Airwars has documented 30 local allegations of U.S. strikes in Yemen, most likely ordered by the CIA. The Department of Defense does not even have a desk to monitor civilian casualties in Yemen.

This does not surprise me. The U.S. government has denied my quest for justice and accountability at every turn. The Supreme Court declined to hear my case, and a letter to then-President Barack Obama went unanswered. I did manage to speak to officials at the Department of State and the National Security Council. They nodded politely but remained silent.

Not long after my trip to Washington, I was summoned to Yemen’s National Security Bureau, the CIA’s local partner in my home country. An official handed me a blue plastic bag with $100,000 in sequentially marked $100 bills inside. When I demanded to know where it came from, and what it was for, he shrugged.

This is the closest the United States has come to acknowledging it killed Salem and Waleed: an anonymous payoff, without any admission of responsibility. After discussing it with my relatives, we took the money; missing two breadwinners, taken in their prime, the family has few other means of support. But if it was meant to keep me quiet, it has not succeeded. If anything, knowing how cheap the U.S. government considers Yemeni lives to be has made me more determined.

At the very least, Salem and Waleed deserve the same apology Obama rightfully gave to two white Western hostages his government killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.

Perhaps the recent election of Joe Biden provides the opportunity for a reset, but I am not optimistic. Yes, President Donald Trump loosened the targeting standards and removed the requirement for the Pentagon to report civilian casualty figures, but it was Obama who escalated the program worldwide.

My hope is that Germany will stop supporting the United States’ crimes. We in Yemen appreciate the support Germany has provided to our country through this difficult time of war, so it is disappointing that Germany continues to help the United States target our communities with drones.

My family in Khashamir talks about the drones that still regularly buzz overhead. My young nieces have never known anything different: The Reapers and Predators, and the threat of instant, violent death they represent, have been present all their lives.

When people count civilian casualties, they often forget that whole communities are traumatized too, and that the trauma is long-lasting. Moreover, the use of drones in this cowardly manner also helps terrorist groups by attracting young people to join them. Obama and Trump did not seem to care. Perhaps President-elect Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will reconsider.

Faisal Bin Ali Jaber is an engineer from Yemen.

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