05/25/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Deploying Killer Drones in Yemen Will Make Us All Less Safe

This week's suicide bomb in Sana'a came as no surprise here in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been threatening an attack on Sana'a for some time now. But it may be something of a surprise to many Americans that many Yemenis would cite U.S. activity here as a root cause of the attack.

It is of course oversimplification to blame AQAP's terrorism on U.S. intervention. Yet one of the grievances long expressed against Yemen's leadership is the extent to which it bends to U.S. counter-terrorism demands at the expense of its own people. Thanks to escalating drone attacks, U.S. counter-terrorism here is becoming steadily more visible, deadly and terrifying to ordinary Yemenis. Unless U.S. strategy changes, I fear we have only seen the beginning of these tragedies.

I spent yesterday in a small walled garden in Sana'a's Central Prison, visiting U.S. citizen Sharif Mobley, an early casualty of the U.S.'s activity in Yemen. His wife and kids were with me. For the first time in two years, Sharif was allowed to hoist his daughter on his shoulders to pick an apricot, and tip his son on a seesaw. His story -- that of an innocent man seized trying to bring his family home -- exposes the recklessness of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy here.

Sharif had been in Sana'a since 2008 with his family, studying Arabic and Islam, when he visited the U.S. Embassy to request a passport for his newborn son. U.S. agents had Sharif followed home, and shortly afterwards he was kidnapped in his own neighborhood. Two white vans pulled up and a gang in balaclavas leapt out, shot Sharif in the leg, and carted him off to a hospital. There he was chained to the bed and blindfolded nearly 24 hours a day.

Newly-obtained FOIA documents show that while a secret prisoner in this hospital FBI agents (and likely others) came to interrogate him. Sharif repeatedly asked "Matt from FBI and Khan from DOD," as they called themselves, for a lawyer, and begged them to tell his wife he was safe. They refused. "You're not under arrest," they said. "There are no Constitutional rights in Yemen." Matt and Khan threatened he would be secretly detained until he gave up all 'extremists' he knew. U.S. agents apparently hoped Sharif would have intelligence leading them to Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical U.S. cleric killed last year in a drone strike. Sharif, like many U.S. Muslims, grew up listening to Awlaki's (fairly anodyne) sermons. He told the FBI he had spoken to Awlaki on a couple of occasions early in his Yemen travels -- before Awlaki became Public Enemy No. 1 -- but had no idea where he was now.

Sharif answered as best he could, but -- difficult though it was for the FBI to accept -- didn't have the information they sought. Disappointing them earned him more threats: he was told he would be taken to prison and raped, and that his wife would be imprisoned and face much the same. It is now said that after nearly two months of secret detention a desperate Sharif tried to escape from hospital, shooting two Yemeni guards, one fatally.

Sharif is now on trial for his life over that incident (all allegations of terrorism have long since been dropped) and Reprieve and our Yemeni partners are defending him. In Yemen, in theory, it is permissible to use lethal force to defend oneself from a kidnapping. But what about when your abduction is at the behest of the U.S. government? The outcome is not so clear.

Sharif and his family -- along with many Yemenis -- are still paying the price of a panicked, overbroad and wilfully unlawful U.S. sweep for suspects in 2010. But current U.S. policy is more reckless still. The CIA seems to have moved from secretly capturing 'suspected militants' to simply killing them in drone strikes. This tactic will backfire. Some we kill are named militants, to be sure. But many more who die by drone in Yemen, as in Pakistan, may be ordinary citizens like Sharif Mobley and his family.

The drone war is now at a stage much like Guantánamo's early days, when Bush and Rumsfeld could insist without fear of contradiction that every prisoner was a terrorist seized on the Afghan battlefield. Investigation proved them wrong, and already with scant facts available on Yemen strikes we know of awful mistakes. A strike in al-Majala wiped out 41 civilians, including whole families. Another in Marib killed a government official sent to negotiate with al Qaeda. How many more errors do we know nothing of? Most victims are faceless, nameless, and will remain so until deaths are properly documented. (We at Reprieve are building a team of investigators to do just this.)

It is true that al Qaeda operate in southern Yemen; but there is also a broader and complex insurgency there. U.S. officials (perhaps sensitive to Americans' conflict fatigue) insist the Yemen campaign involves only counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency. That is not how it looks from here. Moreover, AQAP has roughly tripled in size during the period when President Obama stepped up attacks on them. Each time we hit a family -- as we will, with our policy of firing 'signature strikes,' CIA's euphemism for killing people for behaviour that from a drone's-eye view seems suspicious -- how many more will we drive into al Qaeda's ranks?

Sharif's children enjoyed their time in the prison garden. But they did not understand why Sharif could not leave with us -- and wailed all the way back to the taxi from the prison. As we pulled away, I wondered: How many more families will we tear apart in Yemen in our misdirected zeal to keep ourselves safe?

Cori Crider is legal director at legal action charity Reprieve.