Marco Werman: In December of last year, a US drone slammed into a target in Yemen. What we know for sure is that the strike hit a convoy of cars. Twelve men were killed and their families were paid a total of $800,000. The rest is murky. Gregory Johnsen has traveled to Yemen and he's spoken to people on the ground about this attack. He wrote about what he found out in a report for Buzzfeed.
Gregory Johnsen: So what happened in this drone strike has, as it has been for the past 4 years, is operating drones over Yemen. And what they see is they have cameras on these drones and they're tracking different people. On this particular day, on December 12, 2013, they saw this long convoy of cars, about 11 cars, and they saw many of these men armed with rifles. They have bears, they look like al-Qaeda figures. In the US, in this case, Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, took the shot and they killed 12 of them. Now the US government says that the men were militants. The Yemeni government, which is on the ground and carried out its own investigation, says that the men were civilians, that they were actually members of a wedding party that were transporting a bride from one village to another.
Werman: Is it clear who the United States was after in this strike? Is it possible they were after all 12 of these individuals?
Johnsen: The US was after this individual by the name of Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani. The problem is is that this guy, al-Badani, is not from the area in which the US carried out this strike and, according to everyone I spoke to when I went to Yemen in March, and everyone that Human Rights Watch spoke to, and everyone that other reporters had spoken to, al-Badani was not, in fact, in the convoy. In fact, the convoy was only made up of the two different tribes that were participating in this wedding, so the groom's tribe and the bride's tribe. That was it. And neither of them were al-Badani's tribe.
Werman: And al-Badani, just to clarify, was not one of the victims?
Johnsen: He was not one of the victims. In fact, the US said "Yeah, we hit him, but he was wounded and he escaped." And then a few months later, the US changed its tune and said "Well, he escaped unharmed." But no one in the convoy knew of him. They thought the US was after somebody else because that's the guy's car that was initially hit. You know, his body wasn't there, he wasn't a member of either of the two tribes. This was a case of bad intelligence, mistake identity, and because of this mistake 12 individuals ended up dead.
Werman: In the aftermath of the strike, this Yemeni sheikh, Mohammad al-Tuhayf, as you point out in your article, gets involved. What role did he play?
Johnsen: Right, so what happens in Yemen is that this strike takes place about 3 hours south of the capital and the central government does not have a lot of control there. So what typically takes place is a sheikh from a tribe that's not involved will often step in and negotiate. And so Tuhayf, the morning after the strike, he goes out and he starts talking with some of these individuals, some of the tribal leaders, and attempting to reach a deal and very quickly he realizes that this is a mistake, the men are civilians and what he needs to do is he needs to get some money and he needs to get some guns. And so he talks to the governor who's back in the capital and essentially they have this very long, very drawn out negotiating session in which the central question is basically "What is the value of a human life?" because the men who were killed, they're the breadwinners of their family. They're fathers and they're brothers and they're uncles and they have families in which the whole support system will just crumble when there's no one to make any money. And so at the end, the Yemeni government ends up paying out for the 12 men who are killed, the 6 who are seriously injured, the 2 cars that were destroyed and the other 6 cars that were damaged. The Yemeni government pays about $800,000 and they also give them 105 assault rifles.
Werman: If the US and/or Yemen is confident that they killed the target they were aiming for then doesn't the money that was handed out to the families then amount to a payment to militants?
Johnsen: In fact, everyone agrees that the named target of the strike, this guy Badani, was not killed. But the US still says "Okay, he wasn't killed but the people who were killed, they were militants." The Yemeni government says "No, they were civilians." And so, this is the question, is "Who are these guys?" If the US is right and they're militants, then someone gave the families of these militants $800,000 and 105 rifles. So is the US paying them? Is the US publically saying "We were right, they were militants," and then privately and under the table giving them money as a way to help the Yemeni government and sort of clean up their mistakes? And if the money does come from the Yemeni government, then is the Yemeni government giving money and guns to the families of al-Qaeda members that the US killed?
Werman: If we don't know where the money came from, what is the evidence we have that the US made the payout?
Johnsen: There's very little evidence. What we have is - I've talked to a lot of people both in the US government, as well as the Yemeni government, and the US government will not even engage with questions about this attack or about drone strikes in Yemen or anything to do with payment. So the US has a policy of when it carries out a drone strike, when civilians are killed, the US makes what are called "Condolence payments" to these families and Yemen doesn't have money, so a lot of government officials in Yemen are currently going without salaries, without paychecks. And so the money came from somewhere and so this begs the very obvious question, is "Where did the money come from?" This is a very murky and a very difficult situation.
Werman: Gregory Johnsen is the author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia." He's also the Michael Hastings fellow at Buzzfeed. Gregory, thanks a lot.
Johnsen: Thank you, Marco.