The United States has reportedly carried out nine drone attacks in the last few weeks in Yemen, generating headlines about the targeting and killing of suspected Al-Qaeda militants in the impoverished country.
But how can media know for sure who is being killed?
The uptick in attacks is apparently related to the alleged terrorist chatter that prompted the U.S. government to close down embassies and diplomatic offices. To hear the media tell it, the U.S. is striking at terrorist fighters.
“An American drone delivers a deadly message to Al-Qaeda,” announced the CBS Evening News (8/7/13). Correspondent Bob Orr reported, “For the fifth time in two weeks, U.S. drones fired on militants. Seven suspected operatives riding in two cars were killed by a barrage of missiles.”
On August 8, when Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell asked, “Who is being targeted by these drone strikes?,” Orr answered:
Well, sources tell us that most of those killed so far had been terrorist foot soldiers…. It’s worth noting, though, even the elimination of rank-and-file operatives does have value; it reduces the group’s manpower, and, more importantly, it forces the other terrorists to keep an eye on the skies.
The New York Times ran an Associated Press story (8/9/13) that led, “Three American drone strikes in Yemen on Thursday killed a total of 12 people suspected of being members of Al-Qaeda, a Yemeni military official said.” The piece went on to note that “since July 27, drone attacks have killed 34 suspected militants, according to a count provided by Yemeni security officials.”
Two days later, the CBS Evening News (8/11/13) declared that “just this week, drone strikes in the country may have killed at least two dozen suspected Al-Qaeda militants, according to Yemeni officials.”
And on ABC‘s This Week (8/11/13), correspondent Martha Raddatz said that those the government suspects of plotting a major attack “were not killed in those strikes in Yemen, but the dead are part of what they called the network of terrorists trying to kill Americans.”
But how would anyone have any confidence about who is dying in the drone strikes in Yemen? If the information about targets comes from the Yemeni government, journalists might consider the fact that it is also fighting the same group–Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula–and thus might have an interest in declaring victories over its foe, and a reluctance to admit that its U.S. allies are killing innocent citizens. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen may have killed more than a hundred civilians since 2002.
As the Washington Post (12/24/12) reported under the headline “When U.S. Drones Kill Civilians, Yemen’s Government Tries to Conceal It,” the Yemeni government “has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread.”
Some outlets have expressed caution, like this McClatchy report (8/9/13):
While Western news reports have cast casualties of the next strike, on Aug. 1, as militants, locals in the area of Hadramawt where it took place have claimed that the dead had no links to the al Qaida group and included a child.
As for the strikes dealing any sort of blow to the group, another report from the Post (5/30/12) noted that “an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.” The paper added:
In 2009, when President Obama was first known to have authorized a missile strike on Yemen, U.S. officials said there were no more than 300 core AQAP members. That number has grown in recent years to 700 or more, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say.
And it appears that the United States has broadened its rules for who it considers a target. As the New York Times (8/12/13) reported, a “senior American official” acknowledged that the terrorist threat has “expanded the scope of people we could go after.” The official explained:
Before, we couldn’t necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it’d have to be an operations director…. Now that driver becomes fair game because he’s providing direct support to the plot.
Given that the administration had previously defined militants as military-age males in the vicinity of a target (Salon, 5/29/12), one would hope reporters would take official claims–from U.S. or Yemeni officials–with a grain of salt.