When six Yemenis travelling in their car 175 km east of Sana, the capital, were blown up by remote control on November 3, US officials were quick to claim the credit. They said that the CIA carried out the targeted assassination, and that the new technology would serve to warn ‘terrorists’. But Yemeni officials, who had supplied the data used to track down the men, pretended that they had no knowledge of US involvement and promised to investigate. The alleged al-Qa’ida suspects were killed when a Predator ñ an unmanned air vehicle, operated by the CIA - launched a Hellfire missile at the car, destroying it and burning the passengers’ bodies beyond recognition.
Five of the bodies could not be identified at all; the sixth is said to be Ali Qaed Sunian al-Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, who was wanted for his alleged role in the attack on the USS Cole two years ago. From its usual operating height of between 10,000 and 15,000 feet, the small aircraft would not be heard on the ground, and the men must have been taken by surprise, having received no prior warning or a chance to give themselves up. The fact that this Israeli-style targeted assassination was carried out with the cooperation of the Yemeni rulers makes it not less heinous, but more.
The Americans’ allegation is that Abu Ali was a former bodyguard of Usama bin Ladin, and one of the 15 leading members of al-Qa’ida in Yemen, pursued by local security forces and US special forces with the help of some tribal leaders in remote areas. American reports reveal that in addition to giving Sana aid for its cooperation, Washington is also paying the salaries of 80 tribal leaders retained to provide information on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda suspects. According to reports, it was tribesmen who led a Yemeni intelligence officer to where the six men started their journey in the Rub’ al-Khali (‘empty quarter’) desert. The officer then alerted the CIA. Reports crediting the targeting of the car to intercepted phone calls have been dismissed by intelligence experts, who say that al-Qa’ida operatives are known to avoid using satellite phones; they also said that the cooperation of local officials was essential.
Loren Thomson, head of security studies at the Lexington Institute, said in a newspaper interview on November 6 that technology had its limitations and could not entirely replace the role of human intelligence. “Without extensive human intelligence on where the al-Qaeda operatives are, it is unlikely that we will find all of them,” he said; “technology has its limitations, and al-Qaeda operatives know most of those limitations.” A former CIA official who has worked in the area made similar observations. “On an operation like this you have to be thoroughly embedded in the situation,” he said. “You’re not just flying up there with a Predator looking for a licence plate. People like this are always captured with your number-one asset, your relationship with local intelligence.”
The Predator, which can hover over its target for 24 hours, is fitted with a 900-mm zoom lens on its video-camera and has an infra-red camera and all-weather radar. From 15,000 feet the camera can read vehicle number-plates and zoom in on faces, enabling its operator to identify targets relatively easily. The Yemeni authorities had been hoping that the speculation that they had played a role in assassinating their citizens would be precluded by the perception that the new technology was self-sufficient in finding its targets and collecting the necessary information. Earlier they had hoped that the Americans would not admit their role, believing that they could pretend that the explosion was an accident. They had already claimed that the car was carrying explosives and guns, and indicated that the passengers were terrorists. The Americans continue to use this allegation as evidence that the passengers were al-Qa’ida suspects, about to attack US targets, and that the severe burning of the bodies was caused not by the second explosion that followed the attack.
The undisguised pleasure of US officials at the deaths has made things no easier for Sana either. On November 5 on CNN television deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz called the incident “a very successful tactical operation”. He said that the attack had not only “gotten rid of somebody dangerous”, but also “imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures.” Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld welcomed the news of Abu Ali’s assassination. “He is an individual who has been sought after,” he said. “It would be a very good thing if he were out of business.” The American officials were anxious to send a clear message to ‘terrorists’, and could not keep silent about their role.
But the rulers of Yemen did not appear to be helping themselves. Two days after the assassination president Ali Abdullah Saleh called on members of al-Qa’ida in Yemen to “repent” and renounce violence. Those who “return to the path of righteousness and correctness” would be “given protection” and “allowed to return to society as good citizens”. This is no amnesty, as analysts pointed out, but a signal that al-Qa’ida members who turn themselves in will be tried in Yemen, not the US. The authorities’ continued silence about any US role, and insistence that they are still investigating, is adding to the anger of a people who are already furious with their leaders for their capitulation to US pressure to cooperate with the war on Islamic activism.
While Ali Saleh was calling on suspected al-Qa’ida members to surrender, and other Arab leaders were silent, the Swedish foreign minister publicly criticised the attack. Speaking in Mexico on the very day Ali Saleh was broadcasting his call, Anna Lindt said: “If the US is behind this with Yemen’s consent, it is nevertheless a summary execution that violates human rights. Even terrorists must be treated according to international law. Otherwise any country can start executing those whom they consider terrorists.”
Most Yemenis believe that Washington wants to force their leaders to execute those whom it considers to be terrorists, and have already expressed their anger in anti-US demonstrations and attacks on western targets. The Americans have asked the Yemeni government to increase its protection for the embassy in Sana, which was closed on November 5. But the US government will not be deterred from carrying out its criminal attacks or from showing off its new technology.
Unfortunately the result could be the destabilisation of Yemen and, indeed, of the entire region: a prospect the bloodthirsty and gung-ho Bush, now reinforced by majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, will not lose much sleep over.