Rare U.S. Military Acknowledgment of Civilian Casualties in Yemen—Concerns about transparency persist

In a rare acknowledgment, the U.S. military admitted last night that civilians, including children, “were likely killed” in the commando raid in Yemen on Sunday. This acknowledgment follows mounting criticism of the operation, with U.S. military sources cited in media reports claiming that “Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

Initially, the military had claimed that one Navy SEAL and “an estimated 14 [Al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula] members” had been killed in the operation. Subsequent media reports, citing Yemeni officials, contradicted this statement, alleging that approximately 15 women and children had been killed. These included 8-year-old American Nawar al-Aulaqi, daughter of Anwar al-Aulaqi, who was targeted and killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, and brother of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, killed in a U.S. drone strike just two weeks later the same year.

The statement by the military is unusual. After years of complete secrecy, starting in 2016 the US military has been acknowledging the fact of strikes in Yemen. Nevertheless, allegations of civilian casualties have mostly been met with total silence, and certainly little or nothing in the way of official response. Numerous cases of alleged civilian casualties, such as a September 2012 strike that reportedly resulted in the death of 12 civilians, including a pregnant woman, have never been officially acknowledged by the U.S. government.

The release of information about specific strikes and raids has been one of the loudest and most common demands made on the U.S. government by families and survivors, who mostly suffer in limbo, without acknowledgement or accountability. Following years of pressure and calls for transparency in relation to U.S. drone strikes and other operations involving the use of force overseas, there have been some limited improvements in recent years. Strikes have been regularly acknowledged by the military in Somalia since late 2014, and, as mentioned, in Yemen starting in 2o16. Strikes in Pakistan remain almost completely secret, however. Since 2015, in active combat zones such as Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military has also published a series of batches of cases in which civilian casualties have been alleged.

However, this kind of acknowledgment, with details of alleged civilian casualties soon after a specific incident, remains outside the norm. It is not clear if this was prompted by the fact that it appears an American child was among those killed, the botched nature of the operation, increasing public criticism of the raid, or if—however unlikely given the spate of other human rights harming policies advanced by this administration—this marks a new departure toward greater transparency about civilian casualties. The U.S. military also stated that it was carrying out a “credibility assessment” to see if there were additional civilians harmed. Journalists, civil society and others should continue to press the U.S. government for the results of any investigation, and for information about whether any compensation or condolence payments will be paid to the civilians injured and families of those killed in the operation.

As highlighted by Luke Hartig, many very serious questions about this raid remain unanswered. These include what legal basis there was for the operation, whether consent was given by the Yemeni government and by whom, what type of interagency review and preparation took place, what intelligence was relied on, what measures were taken before and during the operation to minimize civilian casualties, and whether, as is reportedly being considered, this is the beginning of expanded operations in Yemen and a roll-back of President Obama’s policies on the use of force. If so, reports of civilian casualties from U.S. operations there could become even more commonplace.

 

Image: Eight-year-old American Nawar al-Aulaqi, reportedly killed in a U.S. military raid in Yemen. Yemeni media / via Twitter 

About the Author(s)

Alex Moorehead

Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute Follow him on Twitter (@apmoorehead).