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Seeking the Truth About U.S. Targeted Killing Strike That Killed Dozens of Women and Children in Yemen

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April 17, 2012

By Nathan Freed Wessler, Fellow, ACLU, and Pardiss Kebriaei, Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights

Today the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about a horrific U.S. missile strike that killed dozens of civilians in Yemen.

This was the Obama administration’s first known missile strike in Yemen, carried out with one or more cruise missiles launched from an American warship or submarine on December 17, 2009. The U.S. military reportedly used cluster bombs, killing at least 41 people in the remote mountain village of al-Majalah in Yemen’s Abyan province. The government was purportedly targeting “militants,” but those killed include at least 21 children and 14 women. Entire families were wiped out. It is the worst reported loss of civilian life from a U.S. targeted killing strike in Yemen to date.

Although Yemen initially claimed responsibility for the attack, the press soon quoted unnamed American government officials acknowledging that in fact the U.S. had launched the strike. Those reports were confirmed when WikiLeaks released a secret diplomatic cable from January 2010 describing a meeting between then head of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus and then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The cable describes General Petraeus and President Saleh discussing an apparent agreement that Yemen would help conceal U.S. involvement in the al-Majalah and other missile strikes in Yemen by publicly taking responsibility for those attacks. Even now, the U.S. government refuses to publicly discuss its role in the strike.

A recently released film by journalist Jeremy Scahill and filmmaker Richard Rowley, America’s Dangerous Game, vividly illustrates the human toll of the strike, and describes the backlash against it in Yemen. In the below clip from the film, you’ll see footage taken just after the strike of child victims, images of missile parts scattered across the landscape, many clearly stamped as made in the U.S., and interviews with the few survivors.

The images are horrifying. Rarely has the American public seen so clearly the human costs of America’s targeted killing campaign. And yet, the U.S. government refuses to answer basic questions about its involvement or whether it has compensated victims’ families for their loss.


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Our FOIA request seeks information about the legal and factual basis for the al-Majalah strike, whether the government knew that civilians, including women and children, were present, and what steps it has taken to investigate the attack or compensate injured survivors and victims’ family members. We also ask for information concerning the U.S. government’s efforts to conceal its responsibility for the strike. The answers are crucial if the public is to evaluate whether the government’s targeted killing program is both legal and wise.

The U.S. asserts the right to use lethal force against suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, a claim that is legally questionable and deeply controversial, not least because killings far from any battlefield increase the risk that innocent civilians will die. Government officials repeatedly minimize or deny civilian deaths caused by the targeted killing program, but increasing reports of civilian casualties caused by strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere raise serious questions about whether the government is violating international and domestic law by failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and by using lethal force away from active battlefields.

As the America ramps up its targeted killing campaign in Yemen, our government must explain what went wrong in the al-Majalah strike and what it is doing to avoid making the same mistakes again.

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