Yemen Banned Pentagon’s Drone Operations after US Struck Wedding Procession

In Sunday’s New York Times, a must-read story by Mark Mazzetti chronicles a wide range of issues involving the CIA and counterterrorism programs. A news development that might be lost, among all the other issues covered in the story, involves the Pentagon’s drone operations in Yemen. Take the first paragraph and two paragraphs that appear much later in the story, and the following emerges:

1. The Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Command was responsible for the drone strike that hit a wedding convoy in Yemen in December 2013 (the US military’s role was also previously reported by NBC).

2.  Following the “botched” strike, Yemen’s government called for a halt to all drone operations conducted by the Defense Department.

3. Defense Department drone operations have since stopped, though CIA drone operations in Yemen have been allowed to continue.

Two matters of importance emerge from this account.

First, it is notable that Yemen’s preference for CIA over DOD operations is now part of a pattern repeated in other countries such as Jordan and Pakistan which also favor the CIA over the DOD, according to the Times story. (The covert program in Jordan involves arming and training Syrian rebels.)

Second, the strong reaction by the Yemeni government is more consistent with reports by human rights groups contending that the December 2013 strike killed innocent civilians and is less consistent with recent (anonymous) US officials’ claiming that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the attack. If the latter were correct, why would it have outraged the Yemeni government to the point of calling off future DOD operations?

Here are the three relevant paragraphs from the New York Times:

“In the skies above Yemen, the Pentagon’s armed drones have stopped flying, a result of the ban on American military drone strikes imposed by the government there after a number of botched operations in recent years killed Yemeni civilians. But the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone war in Yemen continues.

A number of bungled drone strikes carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen led the government there in recent months to temporarily ban drone strikes by the military ….

Officials said that the ban, not previously reported, came after a military drone strike in December killed a number of civilians who were part of a wedding procession in a desolate region south of Yemen’s capital, Sana.”

For Just Security’s earlier coverage of the December 2013 strike, see posts by David Cole, Daphne Eviatar, Sarah KnuckeyMarty Lederman, and myself. 

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.