Faisal bin Ali Gaber is the sort of person you instinctively trust, who tends to remind you of your grandfather or a favorite old teacher. That shock of familiarity is important because Faisal is not American, or even Western. He is from Yemen. He had little occasion to think of the West until last August, when missiles from an American drone struck his hometown of Khashamir and killed two of his relatives.
Faisal speaks of his grief softly, and chooses his words with care. That is why we have brought him to Washington at the invitation of peace group CodePink: to make people at the heart of the drone program look on the human effects of their policies. Faisal's story has already moved many people; what we need now is for it to shift the drone program itself.
On Aug. 29, 2012, a drone strike cut short the wedding celebrations of Faisal's eldest son. The relatives he lost, Salem and Waleed, were not just innocent; a policeman and an influential imam, they were the sorts of Yemenis that Americans need most to befriend. Days before he died, Salem, the imam, denounced al-Qaida in a sermon. This wasn't the first of these sermons from Salem, who had devoted his life to steering young men away from violence. But it was his last. A drone left a trail of anger and pain where Salem once was, and no one has stepped forward to take his place. Faisal says local elders now struggle to tell angry youths that the United States is not their enemy.
It took Faisal months to pull himself out of despair after these deaths. He stepped down from his job as an environmental engineer for the Yemeni government. When I met him at a Reprieve event in Yemen this spring, he told me he felt some hope again, and asked us to work with him to pursue two things. Of course he wanted accountability for the deaths of his innocent loved ones, he said. But his main goal was to stop these terrible mistakes killing his countrymen and driving people towards militancy.
So that is what we have been trying together to achieve in Washington for the past few days. On his very first visit to America Faisal has partaken of the full spectrum of American political life. He has met Congressman and Senators and people in the State Department. He marched in a protest and addressed a gathering of peace activists. And he has steeled himself to repeat his terrible story again and again for a series of journalists.
I was happy to see that the vast majority of these people -- including those you might not expect -- apologized to Faisal for his loss. Rep. Johnson of Georgia put his hand on his heart and offered condolences. Senators Durbin and Feinstein's intelligence staffers expressed regret, as did Sen. Hatch's military staff. Reps. Ellison, Carson, and Holt pledged to lead the charge for greater transparency and accountability. And several people are trying to give Faisal a chance to sit across from the people who made this fatal policy in the first place: the White House.
Whether the White House will hear Faisal remains to be seen. But I hope they are listening. He is what he would say if given the chance.
First, transparency is the start, not the end, of the change we need. As Faisal said to Senate Intelligence staffers in a meeting, while it would help if the United States publicly admitted it was a mistake to kill Salem and Waleed, it raises more questions. Why were they killed? Did they die, as we suspect, in one of these troubling "signature strikes" -- in which an unknown person (and those who happen to be standing near him) is selected for death because of some secret algorithm based on his supposed contacts? Faisal got a call hours after the strike from an official in Yemen's counter-terrorism department, who told him Salem and Waleed were killed by mistake. But this is not an official apology, and means little to Salem and Waleed's surviving families. Who in the administration will account and atone for this error?
Second, mistakes like these suggest we need a fundamental review of the drone policy -- both of its ethics and its efficacy. The deaths of Waleed and Salem have undermined the US's objectives in Yemen. And they are not the only such mistakes. Drones recruit desperate Yemenis to the insurgency, undermine Yemenis' faith in their government, and threaten Yemen's transition to democracy. As I told Faisal the day we met: It is too late for Salem and Waleed, but not for the rest of Yemen. Faisal hopes his visit to Washington will spur those leading the drone program to pause and reconsider.