A Yemeni civil engineer has provided White House officials with a first-hand account of a controversial CIA drone strike last year that he says "terrorized" his small village, scattered body parts near the local mosque and mistakenly killed two members of his family -- an imam who had denounced al Qaeda and a local police officer.
Two National Security Council officials met Wednesday afternoon with Faisel bin Ali Jaber, 55, a Yemeni government engineer who is seeking U.S. government compensation for his village, a White House official confirmed to NBC News.
"This is significant, this is a breakthrough,” said Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that helped sponsor Jaber's visit and who attended the meeting. "This is the first time that a drone strike victim has come to the United States and met with members of the U.S. government."
In an earlier interview with NBC News, Jaber described what happened on Aug. 29, 2012, when Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA drone struck Khashamir, the village where he lives in eastern Yemen.
Moments after hearing the humming sound of a drone buzzing over the village, "We saw a flash of light-and a huge explosion,” said Jaber, 55, an engineer with the Yemeni Environmental Protection Agency. “… We thought a mountain was falling on us."
When he rushed to the scene, Jaber said, he discovered a bloody scene – legs, arms and a head strewn on the ground. Among the five he later learned had been killed, he said, were his brother-in-law, the local imam, and Jaber's 26-year-old nephew, a traffic policeman. He said the attack had only made al Qaeda "more popular" and that young people in his village were "infused with anger," including two local teenagers who left to join the terrorist group, never to be heard from again.
“They would join al Qaeda or any other group that would be able to get them revenge," he said of the youths.
Jaber also briefed about a half-dozen members of Congress on the attack during his five-day visit to the U.S.
U.S. officials declined to comment on Jaber's account of the drone strike, sticking to a standard policy of refusing to discuss the specifics of any particular strikes other than to confirm those that result in the deaths of high-level al Qaeda militants.
Jaber’s vivid description of the attack comes as the Obama administration faces increasing pressure to reveal what it knows about civilian casualties in drone strikes followng reports by the United Nations and human rights groups in the last month contending that as many as 600 non-combatants have been killed in Pakistan and scores more in Yemen.
"It's one thing to read about collateral damage. It's another to talk to someone who lost their brother-in-law and their nephew," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who also met with Jaber on Wednesday. "I was struck by the perspective that people in his village go about their lives thinking, at any moment, that if they make the wrong turn, or are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the heavens may open up and it may be the end of their existence."
After a dramatic ramp up in the early years of President Barack Obama's administration, the numbers of drone strikes targeting al Qaeda militants have recently tapered off : There have been 25 in Pakistan this year, down from 46 in 2012, and 23 in Yemen (including one this week that is reported to have killed three al Qaeda militants) down from 42 last year, according to the Long War Journal, which closely tracks the strikes.
But despite Obama's acknowledgement last May that the strikes have led to civilian casualties "that will haunt us as long as live," the administration has resisted demands by human rights groups that it provide any public accounting of those deaths. This prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to approve an amendment earlier this month that would require an annual public tally on the numbers of militants and civilians killed in such strikes. (The House Intelligence Committee is poised to take up a similar amendment, sponsored by Schiff, on Thursday.)
The CIA also declined to comment. But an Obama administration official, who responded to NBC News’ inquiries on condition of anonymity, said in an email: "We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with U.S. values and policy. Of particular note, before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."
Human Rights Watch
Locations of the six U.S. targeted killings in Yemen documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The strike recounted by Jaber was prominently featured in a recent Human Rights Watch report that focused on six drone and missile strikes in Yemen that it says killed 82 people -- including 57 civilians.
According to Jaber's account, one of the victims, his brother in law, Salim bin Ali Jaber, an imam and father of seven, had just given a sermon at the local mosque criticizing al Qaeda and challenging the group to justify its actions.
"His last words, his last sermon was that there wasn't anything in the Quran that justified the killing of innocent civilians," Jaber said. "It's not in our religion."
After the sermon, three men armed with rifles arrived in the village and asked to meet with Salim-apparently to confront him about his anti-al Qaeda message. As Salim left the mosque to meet the visitors, Jaber said, the drones were heard buzzing above and the explosions occurred.
Days later, Jaber said, he got a call from a Yemeni counterterrorism official who apologized for the attack and told him that the killing of Salim had been a "mistake."
But Jaber said that's not acceptable. "I want an investigation to know who was responsible for the deaths … and who will be held accountable," he said, adding that he wants compensation for his village, such as a road named for his brother-in-law. "The whole village were victims of this strike. The village was paralyzed by this. … Most importantly, people are still living in fear."
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First published November 20 2013, 4:25 PM