The U.S. media paid scant attention in June when Amnesty International released a report charging that U.S. cruise missiles carrying cluster bombs had struck the village of al Majalah in southern Yemen on Dec. 17, 2009, killing 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children.
Pentagon officials declined to discuss the matter at the time. But accusations of direct U.S. participation in that bombing and others in Yemen that reportedly caused civilian casualties quickly became a principal theme of al-Qaida propaganda.
That theme is now likely to get even more traction as a result of the disclosure by WikiLeaks of an unusually revealing State Department cable in which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his top ministers appear to agree to cover up the extent of the U.S. military role in disputed air strikes in Yemen.
“President Saleh's comments will be translated and used over and over again by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a recruiting and propaganda tool,” Gregory Johnsen, a leading U.S. expert on the terror organization’s Yemeni affiliate, told NBC on Monday. “His statements and those of his top ministers of deceiving and lying to the Yemeni public and parliament … fit seamlessly into a narrative that AQAP has been peddling in Yemen for years. This is something AQAP will take immediate and lasting advantage of.”
As Johnsen’s comments suggest, the Jan. 4, 2010, cable recounting a meeting between U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, and Saleh and his top ministers may well be among the most significant of the scores of documents that have been made public by WikiLeaks so far.
Not only are the full contents of the cable likely to weaken Saleh politically, the document seems to confirm what the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged: that it is deeply involved in prosecuting a military campaign against al-Qaida in a region thousands of miles away from the battlefields in Afghanistan.
In the cable, Saleh told Petraeus that “mistakes were made” during the Dec. 17 strike and another one on Dec. 24 (which was initially, and wrongly, reported to have killed radical U.S.-born imam Anwar Al-Awlaki), specifically referring to the “killing of civilians” in Yemen’s southern Abyan province. He also complained later in the meeting that U.S. cruise missiles are “not very accurate.”
While Petraeus dismissed the notion that innocents were killed (he insisted the only civilians killed were “the wife and two children” of an al-Qaida operative), he later proposed “to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, ‘out of sight,’ and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available.”
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, according to the cable. This prompted Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al–Alimi “to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling parliament that the bombs in Ahrab, Abyan and Shebwa (provinces) were American-made but deployed by the ROYG (Republic of Yemen Government.)”
The casual disclosure that the Yemenis had “lied” about the U.S. role in the air strikes might be dismissed as typical of the kind of diplomatic deceptions that are necessary in an especially volatile portion of the Mideast.
But there is more to the back story of the Dec. 17 strike. It provoked a domestic uproar inside Yemen, spurred a parliamentary inquiry and prompted Amnesty International to send its own team to investigate on the ground. The group’s investigators concluded that the air strike, while killing 14 suspected militants, had largely killed women and children; the Amnesty team also came back with photographs that it said showed the wreckage of a U.S. made Tomahawk cruise missile and portions of unexposed cluster bombs — munitions that have sparked international attempts to ban their use because of their indiscriminate impact. Amnesty also noted in its report that when Yemeni parliamentary investigators arrived in the village of al-Majalah, they “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture.”
“The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty’s International Middle East and North Africa Program.
Just as unnoticed in the U.S. media was the degree to which images from the Dec. 17 strike in al-Majalah and the account of civilian casualties were used by al-Qaida. An al-Qaida video from last spring flashed images of civilians burned and mutilated in the attack and talked about how a U.S. cruise missile “poured its lava over al-Majalah Village” and scorched the bodies of women who were "baking bread for breakfast" in their homes.
On Monday, in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure, an Amnesty International spokeswoman said the organization plans to renew its call for a U.S. investigation of the Dec. 17 air strike — a request that went unanswered when it released its report in June.
“It’s fair to say that this leak kind of confirms what we were saying in our report,” said Sharon Singh, adding that both the Yemeni and the American public deserve to know the full truth about the air strike.
But so far, at least, the Pentagon isn’t talking. Asked whether U.S. cruise missiles are being used in air strikes in Yemen, Pentagon spokesman David Lapan said: "We work with the government of Yemen as well as others in the region to counter the threat of terrorism in the region." But, he added, "we don't discuss the nature of our operations."