And what you can do to make a difference in the age of drone warfare
Earlier this week we reported on the rise of the killer robots, making the case that autonomous drones will be the next frontier in contemporary warfare.
But there is also plenty to say about our current military landscape. Industrialised under Barack Obama, drone warfare has been accelerated by Donald Trump. Obama authorised 186 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia in his first two years in office. Trump authorised 240.
We talked to Makbhout Adhban, an on-the-ground investigator for the charity Reprieve in Yemen, where civil war has raged for nearly five years, and where al-Qaeda and the Islamic State continue to operate.
Adhban painted a harrowing picture of Yemen in the time of Trump: a country at the whim of a US drone campaign which seems to have become increasingly careless about its targets.
“The drone strikes are no longer limited to certain areas that used to be hit during the Obama era,” Adhban told us. “There is a clear disregard of the rules of engagement, for example, when it comes to strikes in residential neighbourhoods.”
In the early afternoon of 29 March 2018, a little over a year into Trump’s first term, Adel Al-Manthari, then a 51-year-old civil servant, was behind the wheel of his Toyota Land Cruiser. He was driving four family members to the al-Sawma’ah district in southern Yemen.
Here, in Adel’s words, is what happened next.
On the day of the strike we were finalising a deal to sell a piece of land, which required a number of people from my family to be present because they all had shares in it. I was asked to drive four people from my family to pick up an elder in al-Sawma’ah to witness the sale of the land. I remember hearing the plane before we left our house, but the areas within the al-Sawma’ah district are used to hearing drones overhead buzzing all the time, day and night.
We headed towards the market for food and some drinks. When we were almost a kilometre away from the al-Sawma’ah district I felt the car was drifting. I was losing control. The car was moving to the left and I was trying to steer it back to the right. The car drifted almost 150-200 metres until it landed on the wheels.
I don’t remember hearing the strike or feeling the missile. But I started to feel heat in the car, which began burning from the bottom. Then the fire reached the sides and I started to feel burning in my feet. I remember feeling a lot of pain and not knowing what was happening. I kept repeating my prayers thinking that I was going to die. I looked around and I saw people rushing towards us trying to save us. As they came close they moved away due to the fire.
I looked up at the roof and saw an opening, and then I looked to the back and saw another hole, and felt I needed to stand up to get out of the car. I was able to push half of me outside the car and look beneath me. I saw that Salem was dead and his head was lying near the front seat. I looked at the back seat where Abdullah had been decapitated and his body cut in half. I turned to see the others and Mohammed’s legs had been cut off [and he had died]. Finally I saw Nasser, who was screaming with me: “Please help us.”
I was finally able to push myself outside the car and move myself a couple of metres away. A Hyundai car approached and two individuals came out and started running towards me to help. They carried me to their car and I told them: “There are still four inside”. They said: “We will try to get them out of the car but we need to take you to the hospital.”
They took me to al-Sawma’ah hospital where I got my initial treatment. After a while I heard the voice of Nasser screaming from a nearby room. He was first transferred to al-Bayda’s main hospital and then to Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, but unfortunately he died there after 15 days.
I have burns all down the left side of my body and my feet. I can’t walk anymore. I had six surgeries on my left arm and broke a bone on my back. I can’t move my fingers now. I cannot walk or move without the help of my children or the people around me. It is such a terrible feeling to see your children looking at you while you are on your bed hoping that they will see you walk again. My children have lost all hope in life. They always saw me as a shield who could protect the family from everything. They always ask: “Who did this to us?” They have stopped going to school because they are next to me most of the time and they have lost their social life with their friends. I always took good care of my family.
I stayed at the hospital in Aden between the end of March and August, and I lost a lot of my savings. Then I had to travel to Egypt and started taking loans from friends and family. I still have to go back to Egypt to continue my medication, but the cost is very high and I haven’t paid the people I borrowed money from the first time. I haven’t received any help from the Yemeni government or the US government and no one has contacted me to offer any help with the medication cost.
I have no idea why we were targeted. The US administration hasn’t provided any answers. I am the sole survivor of this strike but no one from the US side has contacted me or even attempted to reach out through mediators. The US administration insists that it only targets terrorists and so we have to ask: “Why did they target us?” We are people who love life and would like to see our children provided for, received a good education, go to college, and be successful in life like any American citizen. We do not want anything more.
A statement was issued by the local tribes condemning the attack and a lawyer who is a friend who lives close to us filed at the court in al-Sawma’ah after he took my statement and the statements from the witnesses, but there is a limit to what the court here can do. We also filed an official letter to the Governor of al-Bayda.
I am extremely disappointed about how the US administration handled an attack that was clearly a huge mistake. I always thought that the US was a country that respects the rule of law, respects human rights and respects international laws and norms. This strike totally changed my mind. I am here, the sole survivor, and I am ready to talk and engage with them, but they have to show that they care about the rule of law.
I want a transparent investigation that tells us what went wrong. I want to hear how they carry out these investigations. What I know is that they [are supposed to] hear from the victims, witnesses, and survivors. But this clearly didn’t happen. We do not demand more than people in other parts of the world. We just need an investigation. What the US is doing is saying that it doesn’t abide by any rules, similar to al-Qaeda or any other militia. What differentiates states from militias is the rule of law. Otherwise they become the same in the eyes of the public.
Finally, I want to remind everyone of the names of the victims.
Salem Mohammed Al-Manthari: member of the executive office of the Transportation Union
Abdullah Saleh Al-Manthari: a worker at a Saudi company
Mohammed Saleh Al-Manthari: member of the Yemeni military
Nasser Ahmed Al-Manthari: security officer in the Ministry of Interior
An initial statement by US Central Command on the drone strike, reported by The Daily Beast, claimed that the strike killed four terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]. This claim was revised in May 2018 when Central Command wrote that it was “aware of reports of alleged civilian casualties following the March 29 air strike against AQAP”, adding that “a credibility assessment” was being conducted.
Tortoise approached Central Command for comment. They have promised a response; we will update this article when they send it.
What can I do?
The charity Reprieve, founded by the lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, provides free legal and investigative support to those suffering from human rights abuses. They work with partner investigators to litigate and publicise the civilian impact of drone strikes, and seek justice for those who are affected. They facilitated the above interview with Adel. You can donate to their drones work here.
For Yemen-focused organisations, look at the Yemeni Coalition for Monitoring Human Rights Violations, a coalition of specialised NGOs, and the Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation. Both investigate drone strikes and human rights violations. The latter accepts donations.
The work of Airwars and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in tracking US strikes across its foreign engagements has been essential in bringing accountability to America’s drone campaigns. You can support Airwars here and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here.
Makbhout Adhban, a Reprieve investigator in Yemen, told us about the psychological damage he has seen in Yemeni children who have become collateral damage in the US drone campaign. But, for these children, drone strikes are just one of many threats in a civil war that has desperately ravaged the country. Unicef works with NGOs and local authorities to provide emergency relief for Yemeni children, and Save the Children provides them with education programmes and cash and food vouchers. Doctors without Borders gives assistance in hospitals and health centres across the country.
If you fear our autonomous future, you can get involved with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of NGOs working to ban fully autonomous weapons. There are plenty of ways to engage in their work, whether you are an NGO, an AI expert, or a passionate layperson.
Health professionals can become members of Medact, a charity which focuses on health justice. They have previously reported on the physical and psychological effects of drone warfare. Their annual conference, covering their entire work and including a stream on peace and security, takes place in Birmingham at the end of March.
Finally, Code Pink is a women-led international NGO that mainly organises around anti-war issues. Last year its cofounder described its “global movement to confront drone warfare”. You can join them here.
Though our focus this week has been on military drones, there is a growing demand among the general public for affordable and commercially available drones, from kid-friendly quadcopters to sophisticated machines suitable for professional broadcast.
If you want to fly a drone in the UK, you need to register with the Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA) at a cost of £9 a year. You have to pass a free test in the process. To clue up on this, read the basic rules of flying a drone here. And get to know the laws governing drone flight, specifically Article 94, Article 95, and Article 241 of the CAA’s Air Navigation Order.
Once you’re registered and up in the air, use the Drone Assist App to avoid airspace used by planes or other hazards. And if you want drone flying to be a less lonely pursuit, you can find local racing teams and recreational flyers here. It doesn’t always go to plan, so if you lose your beloved drone attempting loop-the-loops or spying on your neighbour’s allotment, Drones Reunited will endeavour to bring you back together.
All photographs Getty Images