The Yemeni government paid the families of those killed or injured in a U.S. drone strike last year more than $1 million, according to documents that provide new details on secret condolence payments seen as evidence that civilians with no ties to al-Qaeda were among the casualties.
The documents, which are signed by Yemeni court officials and victims’ relatives, record payouts designed to quell anger over a U.S. strike that hit vehicles in a wedding party and prompted a suspension of the U.S. military’s authority to carry out drone attacks on a dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate.
The records reveal payments that are many times larger than Yemeni officials acknowledged after the strike. The $1 million-plus figure also exceeds the total amount distributed by the U.S. military for errant strikes in Afghanistan over an entire year.
The documents also contain other details, including the identities of those killed or wounded in the Dec. 12 operation by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Among them were a father and son with identification cards listing them as associates of a Yemeni organization working to curb Islamist militancy.
The father survived the strike, but his 29-year-old son was killed.
The records were provided to The Washington Post by Reprieve, a London-based human rights organization that has worked in Yemen to document civilian casualties of the U.S. drone campaign.
Kat Craig, a legal director for the group, said the records undermine U.S. claims “that the victims of this drone attack were anything other than civilians” and said the size of the payouts suggest that the Yemeni government — among the poorest in the Middle East — is being reimbursed by the United States.
The records indicate that families of those killed were each given Yemeni currency worth approximately $60,000, with smaller amounts paid to those who sustained injuries or whose vehicles were damaged or destroyed. “In Yemen, that is a life-changing amount of money,” Craig said. “I can’t believe those types of figures would be initiated by the Yemeni government.”
U.S. officials declined to comment on the Dec. 12 strike or any U.S. role in the payments but acknowledged offering money to victims and their families when civilians are injured or killed.
“Although we will not comment on specific cases, were non-combatants killed or injured in a U.S. strike, condolence or other ex gratia payments, such as solatia, may be available,” Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House, said in an e-mailed statement. She also said the U.S. government “takes seriously all credible reports of non-combatant deaths and injuries” and seeks “to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimize such risk to non-combatants.”
Other U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity denied any U.S. involvement in the payments.
Yemeni officials also declined to discuss the Dec. 12 strike or the payments, but a Yemeni government official who viewed the Reprieve documents said they appeared to be authentic.
The records make no mention of the United States or its use of armed drones to carry out strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group’s Yemen-based affiliate is known.
Nevertheless, the documents serve as the only public record associated with the highly classified U.S. drone campaign in Yemen and offer new details of a strike that remains the focus of debate within the United States.
U.S. military officials have defended the attack and indicated that a subsequent investigation determined that al-Qaeda-linked operatives — and no civilians — were killed.
But others in the Obama administration hold different views of the attack, which contributed to concerns among senior lawmakers that the U.S. military is not ready to assume exclusive control of the drone campaign.
U.S. officials have said that both the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center, which was directed by the White House to review the operation, concluded that civilians were probably injured or killed.
The U.S. military has since abided by a Yemen-imposed suspension of JSOC’s authority to conduct strikes in the country. U.S. officials indicated that the restriction is being reconsidered, but for now only the CIA has authority to launch lethal strikes in Yemen.
Airstrikes on Saturday that reportedly killed five militants in Yemen’s Shabwa province were widely described as U.S. drone strikes in media accounts but were carried out by Yemeni aircraft, officials said.
The documents obtained by Reprieve are essentially receipts collected by the government for the cash it handed out.
Recipients acknowledge collecting their share of payments approved by Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi. They were also required to waive any rights to make future financial claims.
“The case is closed” on the Dec. 12 strike in the central province of Bayda, the documents declare in handwritten Arabic script, as well as “any consequences arising from it.” The records bear signatures of a district judge and are dated from May of this year.
The pages spell out a range of payments. Families of the 12 killed in the attack were entitled to 12.7 million riyals apiece, or about $60,000. Fifteen who were wounded could collect about $20,000, with sums earmarked for damage to vehicles and other property.
Overall, the documents account for payouts totaling $809,000 to victims and their families and refer to separate but related payments exceeding $265,000. The sums go far beyond the disbursements of $110,000 in cash and 101 rifles acknowledged by Yemeni officials last year.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert who recently published a detailed investigation of the strike and payments to victims, said it was extremely unlikely that cash-starved Yemen would make such large payments on its own.
Even if Yemen was not directly reimbursed by the United States, it collects hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. In December, the Pentagon indicated that it planned to spend $64 million in fiscal 2014 for “counterterrorism security assistance.”
The U.S. military has in recent years made hundreds of “solatia” payments to compensate victims for errant strikes in war zones, but the payments rarely exceed $5,000 per recipient. A 2013 report by ProPublica cited information from the Pentagon indicating that U.S. forces made 219 payments totaling $891,000 in 2012 in Afghanistan.
The documents also put into question whether the Dec. 12 strike met new criteria imposed by President Obama last year. In a May 2013 speech, Obama said strikes were allowed only in cases when there was “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”