Yemen has quickly become one of the most active theaters of operations for America’s drone fleet, though the killing of a local anti Al-Qaeda cleric underscores the rising collateral damage of the unmanned attacks.
Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a prominent cleric within his small village in Yemen, was known for preaching of the evils of the al-Qaida network, warning villagers to stay out of the group and renounce their military ideology.
Unfortunately for Sheik Salem, US military drones that had been hovering in the area took a shot at two alleged Al-Qaeda fighters last August while he was meeting with them outside of the remote village of Khashamir.
According to the cleric's brother-in-law, Faysal bin Ali bin Jaber, who retold the events to the Associated Press, Salem was called out by the local Al-Qaeda members, presumably to meet with him and intimidate him into dropping his vocal opposition to the group.
Sheik Salem had spoken "about how killing people and labeling people who work with the West as infidels is wrong," said Faysal.
Following Salem’s death "everyone who saw that there is no differentiating between us and Al-Qaeda are asking why don't we just join Al-Qaeda since it makes no difference?" he added.
Though the US does not report individual drone strikes in Yemen, groups including the UK’s Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation all attempt to track such statistics by using information from Yemeni security officials.
The Associated Press for one has reported nine strikes in Yemen so far in 2013, while the Long War Journal tallied 42 strikes in 2012, up from 10 the year prior. That increase is attributed to US backing of a Yemeni campaign to thwart the Al-Qaeda network and its allies, which took root in a number of southern cities and towns. The US considers the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen to be one of its most dangerous, linking it with a unsuccessful airliner bombing attempt over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Since information regarding lethal drone operations is not disclosed, it is not entirely clear how the US military makes determinations on when to strike, and how remote pilots determine whether to launch weapons when civilians may be nearby, as was the case in the death of Sheik Salem - which also resulted in the killing of three alleged militants.
According to a New York Times own analysis of drone strikes, one known pattern in similar attacks involves a drone hovering over an area for weeks before deploying weapons, presumably as military analysts attempt to confirm the identities of human targets.
What puzzles even supporters of the military operations against Al-Qaeda in Yemen is why drone strikes are increasingly targeting fresh recruits, and why the US is resorting to drones at all when they could be apprehended by Yemeni security forces instead.
Naji al-Zaydi, a former governor of Marib Province and opponent of Al-Qaeda who spoke with the Times in February, believes these men represent low-level targets.
“Even with Al-Qaeda, there are
degrees — some of these young guys getting killed have just been
recruited and barely known what terrorism means,” al-Zaydi
said. He also added that, in a tribal culture such as Yemen’s, both
the identity and background of Al-Qaeda recruits targeted by these
drone strikes are not exactly a secret.
According to CIA director John Brennan, drone strikes are only used as a last resort. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in August, he made no excuses for the deployment of drones in Yemen.
"In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution," said Brennan, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last week during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on the US drone program, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and writer whose village had been struck days earlier, told that panel that drones are "harming efforts to win hearts and minds" and are now "the face of America" to many Yemenis.
"What violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike achieved in an instant," he added.