x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

US drones blow up any hope of close ties with Yemenis

Increasing drone strikes are making it difficult for Yemenis to think of America as a "friend".

Late last year I escorted the US radio journalist Kelly McEvers to Abyan, a governorate in South Yemen.

Government troops and local militias had been battling fighters from Ansar Al Sharia, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and had forced them from the area only two days earlier. There were reports that some had shaved their beards and stayed. If they had known an American reporter was around, they would have had a golden opportunity for a kidnapping.

Before we boarded the plane in Beirut, I had told McEvers that I would assure her safety. As one of the rare Americans who understands Yemen well, she knew that I was saying I would do whatever it took to protect her, putting her personal security above my own.

As it happened, the people of Abyan were hospitable and friendly, although their region had been badly damaged by the fighting.

On the edge of the town of Ja'ar, while interviewing some local people, we heard a noise overhead. People peered into the sky until the sharp sunlight forced their heads down. Their expressions changed to alarm - the sound was that of a US drone, they said.

I suddenly felt as if McEvers and I were the dead still walking. I feared for her life not because of a threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but because of her own government's deadly drones.

The US had already changed my life by giving me generous scholarships. The most recent one transformed me from a young shepherd in Yemen's mountains into a student at one of the best universities in the world, the American University of Beirut, and into a speaker who has travelled the globe to talk about my country.

Through a previous scholarship, I had been able to attend high school in the US. There I had some exceptional experiences with my American friends. One of the families I met had a son in the US air force, a man of genuine faith and honesty. On Fridays he would come with me to the mosque to learn about Islam, and on Sundays I went with him to church to learn about Christianity. We developed an amazing understanding and an almost storybook friendship across the cultural divide.

Home after that year in the US, I told my mother - who has spent her life toiling in the fields, never learnt to read and knows nothing of the world beyond her farm - how great my American family and friends were.

The next Friday she waited outside the mosque for the imam, whose sermons were regularly filled with hatred against the American people. When he emerged, she confronted him: "I swear if you continue your stupid preaching against Americans, I will cut out your tongue. You don't know how nice they are."

But now, as we stood on the edge of Ja'ar hearing the drone buzz overhead, a thought wouldn't leave my mind: the person remotely piloting this drone may have been my best friend in America.

I couldn't stop thinking how my mum would regret her words to the preacher, and how she - and our whole village - would become bent on revenge if my best friend pressed the button to incinerate us. That beautiful understanding, that bridge my American friend and I had built, was collapsing as the Predator came closer.

According to the US military's "signature strike" policy in Yemen, the operator piloting a drone - likely from a control centre thousands of kilometres away - does not need actual intelligence information to unleash a strike.

In an area like Abyan, the operator is authorised to fire a missile based solely upon "suspicious behaviour" of even one individual.

This policy, instituted by President Barack Obama, has allegedly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Yemenis, and unfortunately it does not differentiate among militants, ordinary Yemenis and US radio reporters.

Since the policy took effect, AQAP has been successful as never before. Those who have lost relatives to drone fire make up a whole new generation of AQAP recruits.

The drones have made it difficult, shameful and even dangerous to say "America can be befriended", or "America is not an enemy".

In 2008, when Mr Obama was elected, my Yemeni friends and I celebrated more than my American friends. We were inspired by his story and by the change American values could bring to humanity, especially regarding minority rights. We were happier still when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2012, we hoped that as Mr Obama celebrated re-election he would for a while be too busy to sign off on any more drone strikes. But less than 24 hours after his second inauguration, a drone struck a district not even an hour from Sanaa.

Just as Americans wait for the postman to deliver the mail, children in Abyan, such as 12-year- old Mamoon, who survived a drone attack, wait for America to send them more messages from the sky. If this is the only thing America sends, what will they learn?

On Christmas day, while American children were opening presents from Santa, another Santa visited Yemeni kids; two strikes resulted in at least 10 killed and injured. The number of drone hits is increasing, and high-level US envoys don't bother to suggest that Yemen is anything but a war zone.

The godfather and long-term defender of the drones programme, John Brennan, has been named director of the CIA, which does not suggest an end to the drones is coming anytime soon.

As AQAP stabs Yemenis in the back, America stabs them in the face. Every time we think of ourselves as the new Tunisia, the US shows that it thinks of us as the new Afghanistan.

 

Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer

On Twitter: @Almuslimi