Yemeni Activist Farea al-Muslimi Urges U.S. to Stop the Drone War on His Country

Democracy Now*

democHAVANA TIMES – Yemeni activist and journalist Farea al-Muslimi delivered a moving plea before a Senate hearing this week for an end to U.S. drone strikes inside his country. Speaking at the first-ever public congressional hearing on Obama’s secret drone and targeted killing program, al-Muslimi offered a rare first-hand account of the suffering that drone warfare wreaks on ordinary people’s lives.

His family’s village of Wessab was hit by a U.S. drone strike last week, leaving five people dead. Educated in the United States as a teenager, al-Muslimi says the drone attacks are turning Yemenis against the country that embraced him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the U.S. drone war in Yemen. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate held its first-ever historic public hearing on President Obama’s secret drone and targeted killing program. The most moving testimony came from Farea al-Muslimi, a U.S.-educated youth activist from Yemen who offered a rare first-hand account of the suffering that drone warfare wreaks on ordinary people’s lives. His family’s village of Wessab was hit by a U.S. drone strike last week.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: What Wessab’s villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.

This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis. I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like a mother in Jaar who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son’s body through a video in a stranger’s cellphone, or the father in Shaqra who held his four- and six-year-old children as they died in his arms. Recently in Aden, I spoke with one of the tribal leaders present in 2009 at the place where the U.S. cruise missiles targeted the village of al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan. More than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women. The tribal leader and others tried to rescue the victims, but the bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between those of children, women and their animals. Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as their animals.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea al-Muslimi. The strike on his family’s village marked a resumption of U.S. drone attacks in Yemen after several months of quiet. Video of his testimony has gone viral.

For more, we’re joined by Farea al-Muslimi himself in studio in Washington, D.C. He is a youth activist. He is a freelance journalist. And he went to school here in the United States for a year.

Farea, welcome to Democracy Now! How many people died in your family’s village last week in this drone strike?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Good morning. How many—how many people died, do you mean?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Do you know?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I know of five people. But the issue of that is more than numbers. It’s—what it has brought, I think, in the long strategic term, is more than just how many people died or how many people did not—were civilians or were not civilians. There is other cases in Yemen where, for example, in an area like al-Majalah, in Abyan, 46 people were killed in a U.S. cruise missile strike, and four of these were pregnant women. These innocent civilians, for example, in 2009, they were all—there was no militants around that village when it was killed—when it was targeted. And that has—some of these bodies of these innocent people were actually buried in the same grave with their animals, as they were so decimated that it was impossible to separate their bodies. The issue of this is more than numbers, in the sense that it speaks—it’s raging people, it’s making a lot of people angry, and it’s becoming America’s main and only face in Yemen, very unfortunately.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Farea, could you tell us what you know of what the U.S. government is saying was the target of this attack? Did you know the person? And were there—was there any other way, if the United States government wanted to apprehend this—the target of this attack, that they could have done it without a drone strike?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I don’t know exactly what was—why was this person as a target and what is the basis on this attack and how—what was the methodology of the process, and I’m not familiar with that. All I’m familiar with is I knew who is the man. I never met him, though, but I knew that it was 100 percent—and I can confidently say that—it was easier to capture him than to capture any regular gang member in New York City. And that was—that would have been, even security-wise, much better and more strategic, in the sense that now you killed this man—and there was other people who didn’t know he was wanted, and they were killed with him—but in the sense that you killed this man, and a lot of information actually went with him. And that is, security-wise, a lot of loss, in the sense that if you captured him, you could have actually investigated with him and made—and know what is happening and who’s behind him and probably who’s with him in the village. Right now, you killed him, and probably if he has already made another cells, they can one day move again. But more than that is you have raged thousands of poor farmers, whom were—whom were very easily could have handed this man to you themselves if you asked them—if you told them that this man was a target. But instead, a lot of people now are angry.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea, you testified yesterday, unlike the Obama administration, who refused to send someone. And let’s remember, the Senate is from the same party. The Senate committee is run by the same party, Dick Durbin, the head of this committee. The Obama administration refused to send a representative to explain the drone attacks in this first-ever hearing. But you described coming to school here in the United States. Describe that experience for us now, your feelings about the United States, the family you stayed with, and when you returned, the stories you told in your family’s village.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I mean, I continue to think that was the epic year of my life, the very best year. I can’t think of, so far, at least, another year that has been more rich and more diverse and more rewarding, in the sense that I was supposed to never probably leave my village. And actually, I was awarded that scholarship, studied English, and I came to the U.S. And it was an eye-opening, I think, in every sense. And it was—I tend to think of it as much as equal as to the power of studying English, and especially when your school does not teach you that. It’s—you look—you don’t anymore read or write from right to left only, but you also look to the world from your eyes from also left to right. And that, I think, is—it makes me person in the middle of between the two places, or I—if I may say, the bridge that connects the two places. And therefore, when such unfortunate incidents, like terrifying a farmer or very sad story like what happened also in Boston, I equally get the misery feeling of both—of both incidents. And that–and to be, I think, put in a unique position is a place—is something that, while it’s rich and it’s rewarding, it’s also a lot of obligation to connect what you might call the unconnected.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! this week, we spoke to journalist Jeremy Scahill, whose new book has just come out this week. It’s called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. He spoke about U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Because the United States doesn’t have any actual intelligence on the ground in Yemen, they’ve taken to doing these signature strikes where they develop a pattern of life, and they say, if people are in a certain region of Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia—if people are in a certain region and they’re of military age—they could be anywhere from 15 to 70 years old—and they fit some kind of a pattern of other people we believe to be terrorists, then they become legitimate targets. So it’s the most horrific form of pre-crime. They don’t know the identities of the people that they’re killing. They don’t know whether they’ve been involved with any activity. They’re killed for who they might be or they might one day become.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea al-Muslimi, can you respond to Jeremy’s description? And the response in Yemen to these drone strikes, in your family’s village and other places?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I mean, as always, Jeremy is an excellent, one of the very rare people. When you look to Yemen in D.C. and in the United States, it’s not a place that is not understood; it’s highly misunderstood. And one of the rare people who really understand Yemen, I think, is Jeremy. And what he described is absolutely true.

But, in a sense, if I want to push it to more than that, I would say, one, it helps actually AQAP, in the sense it distracts people from being afraid of AQAP, and rather than that, afraid from the air. And in addition to that, if someone like, you know, like the former target in my village—people didn’t know he was in AQAP. He was someone who was a social figure, and therefore, to many people, because you didn’t, you know, capture him and arrested him, you killed a social figure who was solving their problems, and not actually a terrorist, because they didn’t know that he was that. But if you, rather, captured him, that would have made a change. And therefore, even when you kill, probably—or, even when you target and you don’t leak any information of who is this, why is this, what is the methodology, why did you do that, you are actually highly counterproductive, especially in a place where, you know, sometimes the government does not really exist in some areas of Yemen. And therefore, this man, for example, to many people, was their government. This man was a person whom, if you simply would have captured, that you would have a lot—solved a lot of problems, but in—yours and the people’s problems.

But in the sense that you’re also terrifying them, you’re not making any sense to it. And regardless, this policy might look excellent, awesome on paper. It might—you know, you shoot, you don’t actually look—see the blood on your hands, so you don’t feel it. But on the ground, it’s a lot of—it’s a huge—it’s a problematic, in the sense—you can say it’s like the McNamara policy in Vietnam, in the sense that it counts the number of the dead bodies of the other enemy without really counting the new numbers that it is actually—of enemies that it’s actually making, or without thinking about it from any other scope other than a statistical number scope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Thirty seconds, but just the issue of compensation or apologies from the U.S. government for the innocents who were killed in these strikes, or any compensation, what do know of the policy there?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I think this is the worst part about it, is not a single apology, not a single compensation, not any act or even talking to those who lost their civilians, or even just admitting that this was done based—as a mistake. Unfortunately, this has been something that is—the U.S. has never done and something that raged people more. And at the same time, that’s—and AQAP sometimes have paid. I know of some cases where AQAP have paid some compensation for harms it did, while the Yemeni government or the U.S. never did such a thing. And that is very scary, when you make the very bad group do the very right thing, and you don’t do it, or you don’t even apologize or admit it.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea, we have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, Farea al-Muslimi, Yemeni youth activist and journalist, testified at the Senate’s first-ever drone hearing.