The War on Terror has a new front. The United States is expanding military operations in Yemen, where al-Qaeda has a foothold in the South. The last several months have seen a dramatic increase in drone strikes, lead by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA, carried out against suspected militants. Reports coming out of southern Yemen today say that at least 12 civilians have been killed by an American drone strike.
The CIA and JSOC monitor suspected militants and operatives using surveillance techniques as they search for “patterns of suspicious behavior”. When these patterns are observed, drones strike by firing explosives to the area. These “signature strikes” are aimed at anonymous, suspected militants based on observed behavior. Included as a criterion of “suspicious behavior” is presence near known al-Qaeda locations.
American drones are killing anonymous militants and civilians because they are near locations under surveillance. After a drone strikes, there is often a second even more dangerous round fired to the location. This creates a civilian risk because the first explosion often attracts a crowd. Another recent American strike killed 8 civilians in the process of killing 7 suspected militants due to this second strike.
The practice of conducting signature strikes is not new, as American forces have been carrying them out in Pakistan for several years. What is new is the campaign in Yemen is being targeted toward possibly two-dozen suspected al-Qaeda militants. The rise in drone strikes will likely cause more civilians casualties that will go largely underreported as they have in other countries where the United States is carrying them out.
Some American security officials have pointed to the Yemeni military as responsible for the attacks, but it is clear that their military lacks the resources to carry them out, regardless of the $326M in foreign military aid given to them by the United States.
The civilian casualties have been noted by Yemeni Air Force General Ali Abdullah Saleh Al Haymi, who said in March, “U.S. assistance was used to kill Yemeni people, not to kill al-Qaeda."