The Secret War in Yemen

Predator UAV

Predator UAV. Photo: Marion Doss/flickr.

As the United States enters the twelfth year of the War on Terror, the counterterrorism effort has challenged the premises of international law. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) armed with Hellfire missiles with targeting capabilities have replaced special forces and manned aircraft as the U.S. tactic of choice against militants. According to the American Security Project, the U.S. military operates UAVs in declared combat zones—Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—while the CIA operates covert UAV programs in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.  These programs raise concerns about oversight, international human rights, and international laws governing warfare. If the White House doesn’t address concerns regarding the most recent UAV attacks in Yemen, the U.S. risks setting a dangerous precedent for UAV warfare worldwide.

The Long War Journal estimates that the U.S. has carried out three times as many strikes this year as it has in previous years against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  The increase of covert UAV activity in Yemen raises many important questions: How are the targets decided? Who authorizes the strikes? Are the strikes legal?

John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, argued that UAV warfare is legally justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter and militarily advantageous because it is low cost and limits casualties on both sides. He argues that capturing insurgents is impossible due to AQAP’s asymmetric tactics and Yemen’s difficult terrain. The U.S. military contends that UAV warfare is a moral necessity. UAVs are more precise and efficient than military alternatives like bombs, air strikes and ground troops.  In April John Brennan stated: “there is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.”

However, scholars argue that international law needs to be updated because UAVs, like gunpowder in the 1500’s, and military aircraft in the early 1900’s,  have changed the face of warfare. In 2001 the U.S. had less than 100 UAVs: now it has over 7,000. In April, the White House approved a policy to allow “signature strikes” in Yemen. Before this policy, viable targets were limited to individuals on “kill lists.”  Now any military-age males in the proximity of targets can be considered combatants. Critics of the policy argue that broadening the rules of engagement to include signature strikes justifies what would have previously been considered extrajudicial murders or war crimes.

Last week, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi admitted that he signs off on UAV strikes committed by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA. The UAV strikes are a source of political contention for President Hadi. His political opponentscriticize his complicity in U.S. UAV strikes. A September airstrike missed its target and hit a minibus in the town of Rada’a resulting in thirteen civilian casualties. When family members tried to lay the bodies of victims in front of interim President Hadi’s house, security forces sent them away. Given the public’s enraged response to covert UAV warfare in Pakistan, it is likely that Yemen will press for government accountability in the form of protests of increasing violence.

Protests mark the  beginning of political and social blowback from the secret war in Yemen.  The American Security Project insists that this is only the beginning of a deepening trend towards anti-Americanism. Another unintended consequence of U.S. covert actions in Yemen is the psychological effects UAV presence is having on the civilian population in Yemen. Two University professors argued that the U.S. is fighting terrorism with terrorism by intimidating civilians, “striking a blow against a powerful adversary, [and] evading punishment.” There are no checks and balances defined in international law about UAV usage in undeclared war zones.

Limiting the CIA to UAV-use for surveillance and transferring CIA armed UAV campaigns to U.S. military control would fix the problem of government accountability. The U.S. needs to allow for disclosure of congressional oversight to a degree that does not put intelligence operations at risk. Lastly, the U.S. needs to establish international “rule of the skies” to promote individual liberties and human rights. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International released a Drone Industry Ethics Code that insists on a framework for UAV testing and educating the public. These advancements need to be extended into an international standard.

This is a cross-post from the Global Security Monitor


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Vested Interest or Moral Indecisiveness? Explaining the EU’s Silence on the US Targeted Killing Policy in Pakistan

 Robot Warriors

US Unmanned Aerial Systems


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

One Response to “The Secret War in Yemen”

  1. US has Predators in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Sounds worse than Cambodia to me. Sounds like a moral collapse in our leadership. Sounds like the war profiteers are happy now but there are consequences to come.