U.S. Officials: Drone Strike That Hit Yemen Wedding Convoy Killed Militants, Not Civilians

Local reports initially said at least 13 civilians died from the airstrike

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Yahya Arhab / EPA

A Yemeni boy looks at graffiti depicting a U.S. drone at a street in Sana'a, Yemen, on Nov. 6, 2013.

A U.S. drone strike on Dec. 12 in Yemen that reportedly hit a wedding convoy missed its target, a mid-level leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said U.S. and Yemeni officials on Friday.

The intended target, Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, was the reported architect of the foiled terror plot over the summer that led to the temporary closures of U.S. diplomatic missions across the Middle East and Africa. Al-Badani, the officials said, was wounded in the attack in the central city Radda but escaped.

Between nine and 12 militants were killed in the strike in al-Baydah province, the U.S. officials said. But, in stark contrast to local reports of between 13 and 15 civilians being killed when the missile “mistakenly” hit the several-car procession, they did not know of any civilian casualties. Instead, they said the militants were en route to the wedding but not near civilians when the blast occurred.

Two U.S. officials spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss drone operations. The officials provided no specifics substantiating their claim that only militants were killed. American officials have referenced the program in the past but it’s rare for an individual strike to receive a public comment.

In a Dec. 13 press briefing at the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated the Obama administration’s general position on the use of drones: “Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimize civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations—broadly speaking—without speaking to this one specifically.”

Al-Badani was described by the Yemeni official speaking to the AP as the “very dangerous, high-risk operational militant” ringleader of the embassy plot. Nineteen U.S. diplomatic posts were shuttered on Aug. 2 after a message was intercepted between Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda chief, and its Yemen’s off-shoot about a large attack.

A recent Human Rights Watch report that called for Yemen and the U.S. to investigate the strike cited a councilman, Aziz al-Amri, who said authorities paid $158,000 to families of the dead as compensation.

But a statement from the government security committee published by the state media on Dec. 14 said militants were targeted. “An air strike was carried out at about 4:30 in the afternoon of (Thursday), targeting a car belonging to a leader,” it read. There “were a number of al Qaeda leaders and members who were among the most high-ranking and who had been involved in planning terrorist operations.”

The new comments by officials aren’t likely to end confusion over the intent of the strike, which has only ramped up online since the news first broke.

Sana’a-based journalist Adam Baron wrote an argument in Foreign Policy about how the U.S. strategy to bat down al-Qaeda insurgents in Yemen “has gone off the rails.” Contradicting sources told him that the dead were either all civilians or actually militants. Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, harped on the moral aspects of the strike and added the headline: “If a Drone Strike Hit an American wedding, We’d Ground Our Fleet.” And Iona Craig, a Yemen correspondent for the London-based Times, reportedly met with widows and a son of civilian victims.

“The U.S. should be acknowledging this strike openly and investigating any credible claims of potentially unlawful killings,” Naureen Shah, an advocacy advisor at Amnesty International USA and the author of several studies on drone strikes, told TIME. “Instead, it’s taking a truly warped approach to accountability, leaking blanket denials of civilian casualties that are impossible to assess when so much basic information is withheld from the public.”

U.S. drone strikes have spiked as part of a joint campaign with Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, thought to be the terror group’s most active wing. Yemen’s Parliament approved a decree this week that banned drones and called for an end to strikes in the country, falling in line with its citizens’ growing anger over the government’s relationship with the U.S.

But with the U.S. having the support of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, there’s little indication the non-binding measure will be anything more than symbolic.