The Slaughter of a Wedding Party in Yemen: Anatomy of a Bad Drone Strike

I have demonstrated in a previous article in The Huffington Post that the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drone assassination program in Pakistan, Yemen, and to a lesser degree Somalia is incredibly accurate and rarely leads to the death of civilian bystanders. But the technological intelligence (techint) and human spy networks (humint) used in the drone program are far from foolproof and occasionally mistakes are made that lead to deaths of innocent civilian bystanders. The almost weekly killing of terrorists in Yemen and Pakistan rarely make headlines. But when there are claims that innocent civilians have died in a rare drone strike mistake it creates news around the world. The mere accusation of a mistake in what the CIA euphemistically calls "bugsplat" strikes can create tremendous backlash against the USA and provide fodder and motivation for those who hate America.

According to most media accounts, the JSOC drone strike on December 12, 2013 on a road outside the town of Radda in al Bayda Province, Yemen was a strategic mistake and an example of the massive public relations fallout that comes from even one possible drone error. In a deadly drone attack on a convoy of 11 trucks carrying 60 men to a wedding, between 12 and 17 people were killed in four vehicles and many others wounded. News reports around the globe spoke of a scene of carnage as burnt body parts and burning trucks littered the blackened stretch of road turning the wedding procession into a bloody mess. One report of the attack based on an interview with a local whose son, a father of seven, was killed stated, "We heard a loud explosion coming from down in the valley. There were bodies scattered all over the place," and the women of the village were gathered together crying and screaming."

A Yemeni journalist said of the strike, "You cannot imagine how angry people are. They turned the wedding festival in to a funeral" and locals were photographed standing over a row of corpses with a sign that stated "America spills blood."

But there is more to this story than the callous destruction of a wedding convoy filled with civilians for no reason. As is typically the case, the drone was not of course deliberately targeting civilians, it was trying to kill Al Qaeda terrorists. According to the LA Times there were said to be "five" terrorists traveling in the wedding convoy who were tied to a local Al Qaeda offshoot known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that had recently targeted the U.S. and other foreign embassies. AQAP is considered the most active and lethal terrorist branch in the world and was responsible for the infamous "underwear bomber" plot which aimed to bring down an airliner and other terror attacks.

Among the terrorists in the convoy was said to be Shawqi Ali Ahmad al Badani. Al Badani was a mid-level operative who was behind the Al Qaeda terror plot that the CIA learned about last August which led to the protective closing of as many as nineteen US embassies in Africa and the Middle East. He also attacked the U.S. embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2012 and had a $100,000 reward offered by the Yemenis for his capture. His terror organization had also carried out a bloody car bombing and attack in the Yemeni capital on December 5, 2013 that led to 56 deaths, including those of foreigners and nurses who were stalked and killed in cold blood with guns and hand grenades. Al Badani was no civilian, he was a man described by the Yemenis as a "very dangerous, high-risk operational militant" who was engaged in operations designed to kill Americans and Yemenis.

Unfortunately, Al Badani was only wounded in the attack and managed to escape. According to U.S. officials quoted by the Associated Press, some of his fellow terrorist comrades were not so lucky and the officials claim the U.S. killed between "nine and 12 other militants" in the armed convoy. This source further states that the U.S. official said the Americans "know of no civilian casualties" and that "the militants were traveling to the wedding, but were not near civilians when they were hit."

It does, however, seem likely that the CIA or allied Yemeni spy networks had provided JSOC with "actionable" intel that there were Al Qaeda terrorists in the convoy traveling to the wedding. The drone operators then felt it would either be a "clean kill" that would take out only terrorists, or that the benefit of killing Al Badani and other terrorists, despite the risk of civilian bystander deaths, was worth it (recall there were 60 people traveling in the 11 vehicle convoy, it is highly dubious that all of them were terrorists).

But the question that needs to be asked is: Was the killing of one mid-level operative and a handful of other low ranking terrorists worth the "collateral damage" in lives (and to American strategic interests in Yemen and the world) that would surely ensue from the potential death of civilian bystanders? And were those "9 to twelve" men killed in the convoy really terrorists as the U.S. official claimed?

In this remote region of Yemen that has seen a concentrated effort by militants to set up a harsh Taliban-style shariah Islamic law state, it is not uncommon for terrorists to have ties to local tribesmen. It may thus have been a mix of Al Qaeda terrorists and local tribesmen riding in the doomed convoy. And it is not uncommon for tribesmen to carry weapons which are fired off in celebration on joyous occasions such as weddings. This may have made the convoy appear to be more menacing than it was to the drone operators spying on it with their high-resolution camera.

This is of course speculation and in all probability we will never know what happened on that road outside of Radda on December 12, 2013. In Yemen, however, the consensus seems to have been that some bona fide Al Qaeda terrorists were indeed killed in the strike, but that the majority of those killed were civilian tribesmen traveling alongside them in the convoy. An official at the Yemeni security committee said, "An air strike was carried out at about 4:30 in the afternoon of (Thursday), targeting a car belonging to a leader." In the vehicle "were a number of al Qaeda leaders and members who were among the most high-ranking and who had been involved in planning terrorist operations." One Yemeni security official, however, contradicted this report and told Reuters "An air strike missed its target and hit a wedding car convoy, ten people were killed immediately and another five who were injured died after being admitted to the hospital."

To sort the matter out, a Yemeni government delegation met with tribal leaders from the region to carry out an investigation. The Yemeni government promised to pay compensation to surviving family members if it was determined that civilians had indeed been killed in the drone strike. Tellingly, following the investigation the Yemeni government dispatched an official to the village and offered $110,000 in cash and 101 Kalashnikov rifles to tribal leaders. This would seem to indicate that there were civilians killed in the drone strike as well as terrorists. In addition, the Yemeni parliament passed a non-binding resolution to bring the drone strikes to an end. This symbolic action would seem to indicate that the Yemeni parliament felt that civilians had been killed in the strike and they found this unacceptable.

Negative reaction was not just limited to Yemen. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, condemned the strike stating, "A deadly attack on illegitimate targets amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if, as in this case, it results in serious physical or mental pain and suffering for the innocent victims." Such statements from the UN condemning the strikes are as typical as those of the US government which has defended previous drone strikes where there have been civilian deaths (most notably in the catastrophic spring 2011 strike on Datta Khel, Pakistan which wiped out a tribal council meeting killing 15 elders and 3 Taliban).

Criticism has also come from closer to home. Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece in the Atlantic titled "If a Drone Strike Hit an American Wedding, We'd Ground our Fleet" which asked, "Can you imagine the wall-to-wall press coverage, the outrage, and the empathy for the victims that would follow if an American wedding were attacked in this fashion? Or how you'd feel about a foreign power that attacked your wedding in this fashion?" Such scathing commentaries were typical and it seems that the strike on the wedding convoy has added to the lore on the drone campaign and many will subsequently recall that drones deliberately target weddings, not terrorists.

Perhaps in reaction to the backlash, on January 7th the Obama administration made the highly unusual move of announcing that it was going to carry out an "internal investigation" of the wedding drone strike. The one thing we know we cannot expect from the Obama administration, which has been hyper secretive on the drone strikes, is a declassified report of this investigation. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into the strike, the report will be kept from the public that has come to accept the drone campaign as necessary component of the war on terrorists who do pose a real threat to our nation's security.

Meanwhile, it seems it's business as usual in the skies above Yemen and despite the tragedy in Radda on December 12th the drone campaign shows no signs of abating. On January 8th a drone incinerated two Al Qaeda members in eastern Yemen as they drove in their vehicle. This strike, like the vast majority of drone strikes, was "clean" and did not lead to any civilian deaths so it was not widely reported by the world media. But as the wedding strike controversy demonstrates, the CIA and JSOC are playing a dangerous game that has the possibility to do tremendous long-term damage to America's reputation. One hopes that those in charge of the operations in Yemen and Pakistan have done the proper arithmetic and calculated how many dead terrorists are worth the potential strategic fallout damage from drone strike mistakes like the now infamous one on the wedding on convoy of Radda.

For a history of other drone strike mistakes in places like Datta Khel, Pakistan which wiped out a tribal council and a previous one in Radda, Yemen which led to death of 13 civilians traveling in a vehicle near a terrorist target see my recent book Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda.