Angry Yemeni protesters burn a drone effigy. (Reuters)
A drone strike killed five people last week in the remote Yemeni village of Wessab. Locals are still scared. Many knew at least one of the men who was killed. But they didn’t know that he was suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda. If they’d known, they would’ve helped to arrest him, or forced him to leave their village, or at least kept their distance lest they be killed or maimed. It terrifies them that they didn’t even know he was a target. What if they’d been standing next to him?
What if their children had been standing next to him?
Americans wouldn’t normally hear about how poor Yemeni villagers reacted to a drone strike. But Wessab is the home village of Farea al-Muslimi, a 22-year-old democracy activist who is among the most pro-American voices in Yemen. “I don’t know if there is anyone on earth that feels more thankful to America than me,” he said Tuesday in testimony before a Senate committee. “In my heart, I know I can only repay the opportunities, friendship, warmth, and exposure your country provided me by being their ambassadors to Yemenis for the rest of my life.”
He is just the sort of cultural ambassador the U.S. is eager to recruit. “I strongly believe that I have helped improve America’s image, perhaps in ways that an official ambassador or other diplomats cannot,” he explained. “I have access to ordinary Yemenis. For me, helping the people of my country understand and know the America that I have experienced is a passion, not a career.”
But his efforts are being undermined — and we’re the culprits. In emotional testimony, he stated that the Obama Administration’s drone strikes in Yemen “have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible” and done more to empower al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula than to weaken it. This is his story and his vital advice, drawn from his prepared remarks.
The remote mountain village of Wessab is nine hours’ drive from Yemen’s capital. Farea al-Muslimi was raised there on a farm, where his family lived off fruit, vegetables, and livestock. He would have 19 siblings but for the fact that seven died as a result of inadequate medical care.
His life changed forever in 9th grade.
Thanks to a scholarship from the U.S. State Department, he was able to study for a year at the American English Center in Yemen, his first opportunity to see the world beyond his small village. He was subsequently given a scholarship through a State Department exchange program meant to improve understanding between Americans and Yemenis. He calls the year he spent at Rosamond High School in Rosamond, California, one of the richest and best of his life.
“I made exceptional friends with my American classmates and had the most interesting and enriching experience one could imagine. I filled my days spending time with American friends, learning about American culture, visiting churches almost every Sunday, learning about Christianity for the first time in my life, managing the school’s basketball team, walking the Relay for Life, and even participating in a trick or treat at Halloween. In school, I won the Academic Excellence award in my U.S. History class, even ahead of my American classmates,” he stated. “The most exceptional experience was coming to know someone who ended up being like a father and is my best friend in the United States. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force. Most of my year was spent with him and his family. He came to the mosque with me and I went to church with him. he taught me about his experiences in America and I taught him about my life in Yemen. We developed an amazing friendship that overcame our very different backgrounds.”
A final State Department scholarship funded his college education at the American University of Beirut, where he recently graduated with a degree in public policy. He now works as a democracy activist and a freelance journalist, often helping Western journalists to report in his country. That work has afforded him the opportunity to interview people in the three regions where the Obama Administration has focused its quasi-secret targeted-killing operation in Yemen.
The insights gleaned from his reporting are themselves valuable.
“I have met with dozens of civilians who were injured during drone strikes and other air attacks,” al-Muslimi states. “I have met with relatives of people who were killed as well as numerous eyewitnesses. They have told me how these air strikes have changed their lives for the worst.” On one occasion, he met a man who described how “he stood helplessly as his 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter died in his arms on the way to the hospital.” The man’s house was targeted by mistake. He reported on another strike that killed 40 civilians and spoke to a 12-year-old boy who cried while describing being afraid of the drones buzzing overhead every night.
In al-Muslimi’s estimation, “the killing of innocent civilians by U.S. missiles in Yemen is helping to destabilize my country and create an environment from which AQAP benefits.” They use innocents killed by drone strikes as a recruiting tool and rely on the impression drones create that America is at war with all Yemenis. One little boy, whose father was killed in a drone strike, carries a picture of a plane in his pocket and says he wants revenge against his father’s killer, “America.” Drone strikes “are the face of America to many Yemenis,” he reports. “If America is providing economic, social and humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the vast majority of the Yemeni people know nothing about it. Everyone in Yemen, however, knows about America and its drones.”
In some places, hatred of the drone strikes is so strong that al-Muslimi feels it is dangerous to even acknowledge having visited the U.S., never mind having American friends and acquaintances.
As powerful as all his reporting is, however, what struck me most about his testimony was his description of what happened when drone strikes touched his own life. He was having dinner with a group of American friends last week when his phone started to buzz with text messages. “For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States. They called and texted me that night with questions I could not answer: Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?”
Despite all his reporting, he never imagined his own village, which doesn’t even register on Google Maps, could be the site of an American drone strike. “In the past, most of Wessab’s villagers knew little about the United States,” he said. “My stories about my experiences in America, my American friends, and the American values that I saw for myself helped the villagers I talked to understand the America that I know and 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. I personally don’t even know if it is safe for me to go back to Wessab because I am someone who people in my village associate with America and its values.” What American policymakers need to understand, he added, is that “Wessab first experienced America through the terror of a drone strike. What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”
He is understandably conflicted.
“I hate AQAP. I don’t support their ideology. I don’t like the way they have distorted my religion. And I despise their methods,” he said. But “I fear that these air strikes undermine the United States’ effort to defeat AQAP and win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people.” Look, America, at how the drone campaign has affected one of the most pro-America Yemenis that there is, a young man who lived among us, passionately hates al Qaeda and owes every opportunity he’s had to America.
As he put it:
Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experience with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us — out of sight and making a strange humming noise — was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone.
I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship in America. My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. I was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It was the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants. Even worse, I know it will make people like Al-Radmi look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.
This is some of the most powerful testimony on drones ever uttered in the halls of the U.S. Congress. An informed Yemeni observer, eager for good relations between our countries and the defeat of al-Qaeda, is insisting, based on his personal experiences and professional judgment, that the Obama Administration’s drone war is doing more to empower al-Qaeda than to defeat it.
Do supporters of our current policy have a response?