Millennial Letters

Drones and Their Discontents

Farea al-Muslimi, the hotshot Yemeni youth activist whose heartfelt testimony before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee immediately went viral, says the United States doesn’t even need drones to accomplish their anti-militant aims.

Arguments to the contrary are nothing short of “lying,” he told me as he ran to catch a New York train early Monday.

Ah yes, drones and their discontents—the subject of much debate in Washington recently, not to mention an epic 13-hour filibuster by lawmaker Rand Paul.

A 23-year-old Yemeni activist who spent time in the US, Muslimi was one of six testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights last Tuesday, April 23rd.

Lawmakers were focused on the constitutionality of a potential US drone strike on American soil, but public attention was riveted on what Muslimi said happened when his village in Yemen was hit. Watch his testimony here (pdf of transcript here).

The US regularly engages in such killings abroad, despite loud protestations from leaders who consider the policy a violation of their sovereignty.

The US considers drone strikes critical to national security. But rights defenders and lawyers have also questioned the legality of American drones killing suspected militants, particularly given increasing drone activity under President Obama.

Speaking of which, the Obama administration decided to skip out on the Senate’s “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing” hearing, declining to send a representative—a move that sparked bipartisan outcry.

This lack of cooperation by US officials has also been protested by pro-transparency advocates, who accuse the US military of withholding information on the number of drone strikes and fatalities—many of whom are believed to be innocent civilians.

“The first question is about over-sentimentalizing the drone issue,” I told Muslimi as he ran to catch his train. Pro-droners who believe countless innocent lives are saved when the US kills a violent militant do not have the kind of emotional testimony Muslimi has at his disposal. “Many of those people will not deny that drone strikes will kill innocent people but they claim that they save more lives than they kill, and are therefore a moral good,” I said. “What’s your response to this kind of an argument?”

“I don’t think of what’s going on here as a matter of numbers,” he said. “If it’s one, or if it’s one hundred, it’s not a matter of numbers, whom we saved, whom we did not save. This is like saying”—there was a pause and a scuffle as he jumped on the train—“this argument is like the same argument for going into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction.”

“I personally don’t buy that and in fact if we follow that logic for a second, we’ll find that it’s totally untrue because in one hand, since they started using this [drone] program, AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen is more stronger than it ever was.”

AQAP activity has indeed greatly increased there in recent years, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, with Obama designating the group a “foreign terrorist organization” as recently as 2010.

“You are proposing [a] hypothesis,” Muslimi concluded. “And a hypothesis may be logical, but it’s not necessarily true. And I’m telling you the truth, what is happening on the ground, and that is not true.”

“OK, let’s move away from these theories,” I said, but promptly suggested something equally hypothetical. “Just pretend for a minute that the US allows you to draft a new drone policy, but you cannot ban [armed] drone activity completely as I know you would want to. So what kind of guidelines would you insist on?”

“I am not a policy drafter,” he said at one point—but he got the drift of the question.

“In any case, when in Yemen, they say, what is the answer?” he asked. “I say use the armed forces to defend, and use the forces, the counterterrorism forces, but instead of them going to the village to capture those who they believe they need to capture, they are in the city killing civil-society protectors and pro-democracy advocators and human rights activists; my colleagues. … But this is a simple answer. Use the forces that are there. Unfortunately they are claiming that that is not possible, well, that’s lying. I know my country better than they do. I live there. I have seen these forces capture when they want to capture something.”

I wanted to hear more about life in Yemen, so I asked him how things were for his young cohorts there following the “election” of political heavyweight and former vice president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. (Voters had zero choice—there was only one guy on the ballot.)

“How do they view the recent election there,” I wanted to know, “and what [are] the general differences between this generation and the older generation in Yemen?”

“There is a sizeable young generation in Yemen looking for democracy, human rights,” Muslimi said, later adding, “a lot of, you know, demanding jobs, thinking outside the traditional scope and bringing new tools to solve our problems.”

“Unfortunately, there is [a group of] traditional elites in the country who are supported internationally, including the US,” he continued, presumably referring the Hadi administration. Obama issued an executive order last May that would sanction anyone seeking to “disrupt the political transition” under Hadi, according to CFR.

Nevertheless, Muslimi is positive about Yemen’s future, saying he’s eager to “work harder” on problems like, as he said, “the economy, democracy, youth, women empowerment.”

“In the long-term, I’m optimistic,” he told me. “That’s my country—I have no choice but to be optimistic.”


Photo Credit: Todd Huffman

OG Image: