The Dangerous US Game in Yemen
The largest US military attack on Yemen in history, part of a covert program code-named Indigo Spade, soon followed. On December 17, 2009, JSOC launched surveillance aircraft to survey the intended targets. The operation kicked off at dawn, as a Tomahawk cruise missile was fired from a submarine positioned in the waters off the coast of Yemen. Armed with cluster munitions, it slammed into a group of houses and other dwellings in Al Majalah, a village in the southern province of Abyan. Meanwhile, another strike was launched in Arhab, a suburb of Sana, followed by raids on suspected Al Qaeda houses conducted by Yemeni special-ops troops who had been trained by JSOC forces as part of a special Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU). Authorization for the strikes was rushed through Saleh’s office because of “actionable” intelligence that Al Qaeda suicide bombers were preparing for strikes in Sana. The target in Arhab, according to intel reports, was an Al Qaeda house believed to be protecting a big fish: Qasim al-Rimi.
When word of the strikes got out, the Pentagon at first refused to comment, directing all inquiries to Yemen. Saleh’s government issued a statement taking credit for carrying out “simultaneous raids killing and detaining militants.” President Obama called Saleh reportedly to “congratulate” him and to “thank him for his cooperation and pledge continuing American support.” But as images of the Abyan strike emerged, some military analysts questioned whether Yemen had the type of weapons that were used. Among those found at the scene were BLU 97 A/B cluster bomblets, which explode into some 200 sharp steel fragments that can spray more than 400 feet away. In essence, they are flying land mines capable of shredding human beings into small pieces. The bomblets were equipped with an incendiary material, burning zirconium, to set fire to flammable objects in the target area. The missile used in the attack, a BGM-109D Tomahawk, can carry more than 160 cluster bombs. None of these munitions were in Yemen’s arsenal.
As outrage spread across Yemen, fueled largely by the assumption that it was a US bombing, the Yemeni Parliament dispatched a delegation to investigate. When the delegates arrived in the village, they “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture” along with “traces of blood of the victims and a number of holes in the ground left by the bombing…as well as a number of unexploded bombs,” according to their report. The investigation determined that the strike had killed forty-one members of two families, including seventeen women and twenty-one children. Some of the dead were sleeping when the missiles hit. Rimi was not among the dead, and survivors said they had no connection to Al Qaeda. The Saleh government insisted that fourteen Al Qaeda operatives had been killed, but the Yemeni investigators said the government could provide them with only one name. Four days later, three more civilians were killed when they stepped on unexploded cluster bombs. After the strike, a senior Yemeni official told the New York Times, “the involvement of the United States creates sympathy for Al Qaeda. The cooperation is necessary—but there is no doubt that it has an effect for the common man. He sympathizes with Al Qaeda.”
According to documents made available by WikiLeaks, Stephen Seche, the US ambassador to Yemen, sent a cable to Washington on December 21. Referring to the strikes, it said the Yemeni government “appears not overly concerned about unauthorized leaks regarding the U.S. role and negative media attention to civilian deaths.” The cable said that Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi told Seche that “any evidence of greater U.S. involvement such as fragments of U.S. munitions found at the sites—could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S.” Yemen, according to the cable, “must think seriously about its public posture and whether its strict adherence to assertions that the strikes were unilateral will undermine public support for legitimate and urgently needed CT operations, should evidence to the contrary surface.”
A week after the Abyan airstrike and the ground raids near Sana, President Obama signed off on another hit, based in part on information provided by a prisoner taken in the Arhab raid. This time the target was a US citizen: Anwar al-Awlaki. On December 24, US forces carried out an airstrike in the Rafd mountain valley in Shabwa province, Awlaki’s ancestral homeland. US and Yemeni intelligence indicated that Awlaki was meeting with some of his cohorts there, including Wuhayshi, bin Laden’s former secretary, and AQAP leader Saeed al-Shihri. Yemeni officials charged that the men were “planning an attack on Yemeni and foreign oil targets.”
The attacks killed thirty people, and media outlets began reporting that Awlaki and the two Al Qaeda figures were among them. But CBS News interviewed a source in Yemen who said that not only was Awlaki still alive but the attacks were “far from his house and he had nothing to do with those killed.” In the coming months clear evidence that Awlaki, Wuhayshi and Shihri were not killed in the attack would emerge, as each of them appeared in video or audio messages.
The administration’s focus on AQAP grew more intense after it was revealed that the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—who allegedly tried to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009—had trained in Yemen.
In early 2010, the Obama administration canceled the scheduled repatriation of more than thirty Yemenis held at Guantánamo who had been cleared for release, citing the “unsettled situation” in the country. Yemenis constituted the single largest bloc of prisoners held there.
Meanwhile, the administration continued to downplay the US role in Yemen, with officials publicly repeating a version of the same line: the United States is only providing support to Yemen’s counterterrorism operations. “People ask me—the question comes up, Are we sending troops into Yemen?” Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a lecture at the Naval War College on January 8. “And the answer is, We have no plans to do that, and we shouldn’t forget this is a sovereign country.” Those comments were echoed two days later by the president himself. Obama said bluntly, “I have no intention of sending US boots on the ground” into Yemen.
Despite the official denials, a State Department Inspector General’s on-the-ground review of the US Embassy in Sana found that “steadily growing military elements based at the embassy” were part of an expanding “U.S. military footprint” in Yemen. By late January 2010, JSOC had been involved with more than two dozen ground raids in Yemen, which kicked off with the December 17 strikes. Scores of people were killed in the campaign, while others were taken prisoner. At the same time, JSOC began operating drones in the country as the covert war expanded. What started as a day of coordinated strikes was turning into a sustained targeted killing campaign coordinated by JSOC. “After the December thing with Abdulmutallab, [Saleh] had to kind of show more support for our actions,” recalls Nakhleh, the former senior CIA officer. “He would play the game—he would kind of look the other way when we would do certain kinds of military operations, kinetic operations against some radical groups there. When he was put under pressure, he would say it was his own operations. He played the game.”
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While US military and intelligence agencies began plotting more strikes in Yemen, General Petraeus traveled there on January 2 for another round of meetings with Saleh and his top military and intelligence officers. He kicked off the meeting by informing Saleh that the United States would be more than doubling “security assistance” to Yemen, to more than $150 million in 2010, including a proposed $45 million to train and equip Yemen’s CTU forces for aerial warfare against AQAP. According to a classified diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Saleh asked Petraeus for twelve attack helicopters, saying that if the US “bureaucracy” held up the transfer of the choppers, Petraeus could strike a backdoor deal with the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to effectively launder the transfers. Petraeus told Saleh he had already discussed such an arrangement with the Saudis.
Saleh authorized the United States to strike AQAP when “actionable intelligence” was available, but officially he did not want US forces conducting operations on the ground in Yemen. “You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center,” Saleh said, according to the cable. But everyone at the meeting knew it was a collective lie they would all promote. While praising the December strikes, Saleh “lamented” the use of cruise missiles, according to the cable, because they are “not very accurate.” In the meeting, Petraeus claimed that “the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site,” which was blatantly false. Saleh told Petraeus he preferred “precision-guided bombs” fired from fixed-wing aircraft. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said. Deputy Prime Minister Alimi then joked that he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan and Shabwa were US-made but deployed by Yemen.
Shortly after that meeting, Alimi told reporters in Yemen, “The operations that have been taken are 100 percent Yemeni forces. The Yemeni security apparatus has taken support, information and technology” from “the US and Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries.” But most Yemenis were not buying the story. Ahmed al-Aswadi, a leader of the opposition al-Islah Party, said “it is believed by most Yemenis” that the recent strikes were “carried out by US forces.”
While JSOC forces continued to operate in Yemen, training Yemeni forces and conducting “kinetic” actions, the airstrikes proceeded. On May 25, 2010, a US missile struck a convoy of vehicles in the Marib desert that “actionable intelligence” had concluded was heading to a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives. The intelligence was partly correct, but the men in the vehicle were not Al Qaeda members. Among those killed was Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib province, who was a top mediator in the government effort to demilitarize members of AQAP. Shabwani was in a key position to negotiate, given that his brother, Ayad, was the local AQAP leader US and Yemeni forces had tried to take out in the January 15 and 20 strikes. Shabwani’s uncle and two of his escorts were also killed in the attack, which took place near an orange grove on Ayad’s farm. As with the other strikes, the Yemeni authorities took public responsibility and the Supreme Security Committee apologized for what it said was a raid gone wrong.
But this hit came with much higher stakes because the attack killed one of their own people. Within hours of the attack, Shabwani’s tribe attacked the main oil pipeline running from Marib to the Ras Isa terminal on the Red Sea coast. The tribesmen also attempted to take over the presidential palace in the province but were repelled by Yemeni army forces and tanks. Yemeni lawmakers demanded that Saleh’s government explain how the strike happened and who was really behind the widening aerial war.