SANA’A, May 9 — As President Barack Obama vowed to destroy Al-Qaeda after killing Osama Bin Laden on 2 May 2011, Yemen once again came under the spotlight for being the epicenter of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) activities.
Last Thursday, two brothers were bombed while driving in Shabwa governorate. According to one Yemeni government official, the men were alleged AQAP members. The attack was orchestrated by an American drone.
US officials said that Thursday’s drone strike was the first in Yemen since 2002. Many Yemeni citizens accuse the US of killing innocent civilians in its various attempts at targeting AQAP members.
Although this is the first drone attack that the US has admitted to since 2002, Amnesty International has suggested that the US has been bombing civilian areas in Yemen throughout the past eight years.
In one report, Amnesty International said that on 17 December 2009, missiles were fired at two settlements in the Al-Ma’jalah area of Al-Mahfad district in Abyan governorate. At least 41 people were killed, 14 of them women and 21 of them children.
At the time, the Yemeni government said that AQAP had a training camp in the area. However, a parliamentary investigation committee later determined that there was no evidence to suggest that a training camp was located in Al-Ma’jalah. Instead, it asserted that the five missiles had been launched wantonly, killing dozens of Yemeni civilians. The Yemeni government later apologized for its “mistake”.
Amnesty International also obtained photographs of the attack’s aftermath that suggest a US-manufactured cruise missile containing cluster munitions had been used. The US media subsequently reported that American cruise missiles had been launched under presidential order at two alleged Al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. The Pentagon declined to comment on the matter, saying that only the Yemeni government could respond to questions concerning AQAP-related operations.
Opening Yemeni airspace to US drone strikes is one of the main reasons why the country’s Change Square protesters are demanding the withdrawal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.
Approximately 800 sheikhs from Shabwa governorate have come together to form a coalition intended to curb AQAP expansion in their area and to protect their collective property and land. The coalition confirmed to the Yemen Times that they themselves are sufficiently equipped to tackle AQAP and that there is no reason whatsoever for the US to interfere in Yemen. Sheikhs in this country are notoriously well-armed and a coalition representative insisted that they are “for sure” able to fight AQAP.
“We are over forty thousand and they [the AQAP members] are less than one hundred. So can for sure overcome them,” said Sheikh Hussein Bin Othman, the head of Shabwa’s sheikh coalition.
“Yemen has lost dominance over its own airspace by allowing the US to attack AQAP,” said one local Shabwa resident, who feels offended by the American incursions into his country.
“They [the Yemeni government] do that [allow the US strikes to occur] to gain money through counterterrorism funding,” he continued. “We all know who the AQAP members are. They are few and overcoming them is totally possible, but it seems the government wants them to spread.”
In the capital’s Al-Tagheer (Change) Square, where pro-democracy sit-ins have been taking place since February, protesters also believe that AQAP continues to find support from the Yemeni government, as the latter enjoys the funding it receives in the name of combating terrorism.
Mohammed Abbas, one of the protesters at Change Square, told the Yemen Times that he is against the US drone strikes in Yemen for two reasons.
“It’s a violation of Yemeni domination over its own airspace,” said Abbas, “and it gives AQAP further motivation to stay and to spread, as they will see their enemy [the US] transfer the battle to their own lands.”