The filing provides new visibility into a counterterrorism campaign that has mostly been shrouded in secrecy, as American military and intelligence officials conduct an extended effort against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other militant threats. Since 2015, a parallel conflict between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and forces backed by Saudi Arabia has made communication and media access more difficult, further thrusting the war against extremists into the shadows.
The petition, submitted on behalf of a group of Yemenis by the London-based human rights group Reprieve, which has documented the aftermath of U.S. counterterrorism operations, argues that the repeated targeting of the two families, in addition to lives lost, has taken a psychological toll on survivors.
“Having already suffered enormous loss, the families live in constant fear that the drones flying overhead will strike again, killing more members of their family or their extended tribe or community,” Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer with Reprieve, said in one of the petition documents.
A determination in favor of the Yemeni petitioners by the commission, an independent body affiliated with the Organization of American States, would not necessarily force changes in U.S. military operations or policy. But it could have symbolic importance in highlighting the unintended outcome of counterterrorism operations.
“A decision from the [commission] concluding that the U.S. is responsible for a particular human rights violation carries legal and moral weight internationally. It is also an important tool in creating pressure and opportunities to engage the government on reforms,” said Lisa Reinsberg, the executive director of the International Justice Resource Center.
“On the flip side, a lot depends on political will at the national level,” she said.
Last year, the Inter-American Commission declared that the United States was responsible for torture in the case of a former inmate at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on the petition but said the U.S. military sought to minimize civilian harm when planning and conducting operations.
“Consistent with our mission, our authorities, and our obligations under the law of war, [U.S. Central Command] will continue to conduct military actions in Yemen when required to protect the nation and our allies and partners from al-Qaeda and [Islamic State] terror cells,” he said in a statement.
The filings contain new details on how rural life and counterterrorism concerns have collided in Bayda, an area of central Yemen that officials have also described as a hotbed of AQAP activity. The group was long known as one of the most virulent branches of al-Qaeda, responsible for repeated plots against the United States, including an attempted airliner bombing in 2009.
In the petition, a Yemeni man named Aziz al-Ameri, speaking on behalf of his family and the closely linked al-Taisy family, denies links to militants, saying those killed were mostly shepherds, farmers and their families.
The military actions cited in the petition date to the Obama administration, when a U.S. drone struck a wedding convoy in December 2013 and, according to the filing, killed several members of the Ameri family and five of the Taisy family.
The Yemeni government paid more than $1 million in compensation to the families of those killed and injured, money that Reprieve has suggested may have come from the United States.
The other six actions occurred during the Trump administration, when the pace of counterterrorism operations accelerated in Yemen as the new president loosened operational rules and new intelligence fueled additional operations. From 2017 to 2019, the military reported more than 160 strikes, the majority of which Reprieve said were carried out in Bayda.
One occurred days after Trump took office, when a raid on the village of Yaklaa resulted in a major firefight, killing a Navy SEAL and multiple civilians.
After an inquiry, military leaders said that as many as 12 civilians had died. But according to the petition, the toll was far higher, with 26 people killed, including at least 10 children, including a full-term baby who was injured by a bullet in the womb and died after being delivered by Caesarean section.
Abdullah al-Taisy, a Yemeni soldier who lives in Yaklaa and witnessed the raid, said none of those killed were militants.
“Our houses and farmers are clear. No one is a member of any terrorist groups,” he said in a phone interview from Yemen. Like the Ameri family, Taisy called for greater accountability and fair compensation.
The raid, which U.S. officials said yielded significant intelligence about AQAP, produced a string of follow-on strikes in the same area. According to the petition, a September 2018 strike killed two men serving as soldiers for Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which works closely with U.S. allies to battle the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
“How come they can target official military personnel who were on a military mission?” asked Ahmed al-Helou, another Yemeni colonel who worked with Abdullah al-Taisy. “They seem not to understand the difference between the local community and the militants.”
The Yemenis asked the commission to urge the United States to take immediate steps to prevent further loss of life while commissioners consider the petition, a process that could take years.