Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington

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Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?’”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.