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While most of the world is focused on turmoil in Syria and Egypt, a less publicized but critically important drama is playing out in Yemen, where the United States has been ratcheting up drone strikes against alleged members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Worrisome reports are emerging that these attacks are not living up to the higher standards that President Obama promised for his controversial targeted killings program.
In a major statement on U.S. counterterrorism policy in May, Obama said that his administration would only strike those who represent a “continuing, imminent threat.” He also said the U.S. only would resort to targeted killings when capture is not “feasible” and when there is “near-certainty” that no civilians will die.
Once word began surfacing of plots between the heads of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaida central to attack Western targets, however, those standards suddenly became “elastic,” unnamed U.S. officials told the Los Angeles Times.
Two of the 40 alleged militants killed may have been teenage boys with no links to violent jihad. The New York Times reported that few of those killed in the recent strikes were top members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; instead, it said, the U.S. is expanding its targeting scope in Yemen to include those who play a supporting role.
The White House said in May that its new standards are “either already in place or will be” implemented over time. But Human Rights Watch recently investigated a half-dozen of the U.S. targeted killings in Yemen since 2009 that do not appear to adhere to the standards either.
In its understandable quest to keep America safe, the administration risks stretching its killing rules to the breaking point. The international laws of war permit attacks only against military objectives, such as enemy fighters or weapons and ammunition. Civilians are immune from attack, except those engaged in fighting, or actively planning or directing future military operations. People who play a supporting role in an organized armed group may not be lawfully attacked unless they directly participate in hostilities.
Moreover, the key standards that Obama outlined in May are those set by international law for policing, not armed conflict, even though the president stopped short of declaring an end to the “war” with al-Qaida and its affiliates. Policing rules, based on international human rights law, offer stronger protection for human life, favoring arrest and prosecution. But they still permit lethal force to stop an imminent threat to life if capture is not feasible.
With the Obama administration still refusing to divulge the most basic details about its targeted killings, it’s impossible to know if and when elasticity may simply be a euphemism for illegality, and how many civilians are among the several hundred people killed in Yemen by drones and other U.S. airstrikes since the U.S. began regularly targeting militants there in 2009. Obama has said there is a “wide gap” between the casualty assessments of his government and nongovernmental organizations, but his administration won’t provide any numbers.
The strikes have caused widespread anti-American sentiment and fear in Yemen. The U.S. refusal to acknowledge unlawful attacks and its failure to compensate the families of civilians it has killed compounds the anger. Strikes that kill civilians also play into the hands of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which by some accounts has tripled in size, to some 1,000 members, since 2009.
Rather than retreat from his guidelines, Obama should use the recent threat reports as an opportunity to show the world that the U.S. can address militant threats without circumventing international law. That means disclosing the full rulebook for such killings, as well as who the U.S. has killed, how many civilians are among the dead, and what steps the U.S. takes when strikes went wrong. And it means providing appropriate compensation for unlawful (if not all) civilian loss.
This is not only the right path legally. It is also the smart path if Obama wants the help of the Yemeni people, many of whom fear the U.S. more than they fear al-Qaida.
Letta Tayler is a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch with an expertise in Yemen.More Letta Tayler.
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