Tag Archives: yemen

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

If there’s one thing we know about Bernie Sanders, he sure doesn’t like Henry Kissinger.USflag

And if there’s one fact that he likes to deploy in his foreign policy case against Hillary Clinton, it’s her vote authorizing the Iraq War 14 years ago, when Clinton was just in her second year as a senator from New York.

But aside from the Kissinger snark and some minor back-and-forth over US policy in Cuba, foreign policy played only a little role in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and it’s played an equally minor role throughout the entire contest. On one hand, that’s because the Sanders insurgency has zeroed in on income inequality, the growing wealth gap and the role of wealthy donors in campaign finance. But it’s also because Clinton, whether or not you trust her judgment, is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate in decades when it comes to international affairs. In addition to her service in the US senate, she also served for four years as secretary of state and eight years as first lady. It’s truly formidable.

Yet, given Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s still a lot of space for Sanders to make a strong foreign policy case against Clinton, and time after time, Sanders just hasn’t made that case. Maybe that’s politically wise; shifting his emphasis from Wall Street and income inequality would dilute his message with an attack based on issues that seem far less salient to Democratic primary voters.

But it’s true that Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts have always been more hawkish than those in her own party and, often, those of president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden (who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s amazing piece in The Atlantic about Obama’s world view, said Clinton ‘just wants to be Golda Meir’).

To some degree, the problem with challenging Clinton on foreign policy is that Sanders would largely be challenging the Obama administration, and that’s tricky when you’re trying to win the votes of an electorate that still adores Obama. But Sanders certainly hasn’t shied away from stating clear differences with the Obama administration’s approach to domestic policy.

Moreover, to the extent that Sanders made a clear and cogent case on international affairs, he could claim that his more dovish approach represents true continuity with the Obama administration (and that Clinton’s more hawkish approach shares more in common with a  potential Republican administration). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a talented politician; in one fell swoop, he could use foreign policy to drive a wedge between Clinton and the Obama legacy. That’s a very powerful tool, and it’s one that Sanders, so far, hasn’t been interested in wielding.

Fairly or unfairly, Sanders is tagged as a one-issue protest candidate, and he suffers from the perception that his candidacy’s purpose is to nudge Clinton further to the left, not to win the Oval Office. By adding a foreign policy element to his critique of the Democratic frontrunner, Sanders could bend a more skeptical media into taking him more seriously and show voters that he really can fill out what Americans expect from a president. In the 21st century, like it or not, the president is the chief policymaking official when it comes to foreign policy.

Given the stakes involved, it’s not too late for Sanders to make this case as the Democratic contest turns to larger states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida next week and, after that, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. If he wanted to do so, there’s a long list of areas from which Sanders could choose.

Here are four of the most salient. Continue reading Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Why Saudi Arabia’s ‘landmark’ council elections are a joke

An Arabian woman takes part in municipal elections in Jeddah. (Getty)
An Arabian woman takes part in municipal elections in Jeddah. (Getty)

For the increasingly beleaguered Saudi royal family, it’s been a tough year.saudi_flag_icon

Headlines have highlighted misbehaving princes, struggles over Saudi succession, the wisdom of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, a 20-year record in the number of the country’s executions (including the beheading of political critics and poets), the death of over 700 religious pilgrims during the Hajj in a stampede just outside Mecca and shifting US alliances in the region.

In perhaps the cruelest indignity of them all, businessman and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump slammed as ‘dopey’ Al-Waleed Bin Talal, an influential Saudi prince who runs many of the kingdom’s business and investment interests, last week on Twitter.

But for one weekend, at least, Saudi Arabia was in the news with fluffy headlines about historic municipal elections that allowed women, for the first time in Saudi history, to vote and to run for office, complete with photos (like the one above) that show a purportedly modernizing country where women are now enjoying the right to vote amid a loosening of other gender-based restrictions.

Don’t buy the hype.

Women only sparingly cast ballots in an election for only two-thirds of the members of essentially powerless municipal councils in a country that remains one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, where an absolute monarchy, in tandem with Wahhabi clerics, have restricted the rights of women to a degree virtually unknown across the globe in the 21st century.  Continue reading Why Saudi Arabia’s ‘landmark’ council elections are a joke

Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

parisjanuaryPhoto credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters.

sanaajanuaryPhoto credit to Hani Mohammed/AP.

What do these two photos have in common?yemen flagFrance Flag Icon

More than you might think.

The former is, of course, a near-instantly famous photo of French president François Hollande marching on the streets of Paris earlier today arm in arm with dozens on European and other world leaders, demonstrating the solidarity and unity of the French people (and their allies) in the wake of last Tuesday’s attack on satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people, and another attack on a kosher supermarket that killed four more people.

From left to right, you can see Federica Mogherini, the European foreign policy chief; Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president; Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; former French president Nicolas Sarkozy; Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta; Hollande; German chancellor Angela Merkel; European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk; Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas; and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Not pictured are other luminaries, including British prime minister David Cameron, Jordanian King Abdullah, Greek prime minister and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and others, not all of whom are necessarily known for their staunch defense of freedom of expression, speech and the press at home.

The march was widely covered in world and US media today.

But the second photo was taken just hours earlier in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, where protests have erupted in the wake of another attack, also last Tuesday, that killed 37 people when a suicide bomber targeted a police academy, one of several instances of increasing violence in Yemen. Though they didn’t have the benefit of a phalanx of world leaders, the civilian marches in Yemen are no less important than those in Paris today. Continue reading Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

What’s the factual basis for killing Awlaki?

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Though we don’t necessarily know incredibly much more about the US government’s factual basis for the targeted killing in September 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, the release of an Obama administration memo earlier today by a federal appeals court sheds new light on the administration’s legal rationale:USflag

A federal appeals court in New York on Monday made public a redacted version of a 2010 Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial, following Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The memo, signed by David Barron, who was then the acting head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel and is now a federal appeals court judge in Boston, concluded that it would be lawful to target Mr. Awlaki for killing if his capture was not feasible. Intelligence analysts had concluded that Mr. Awlaki was an operational terrorist.

The Obama administration fought the disclosure, initially refusing to confirm or deny the memo’s existence. In January 2013, a Federal District Court judge ruled that it could keep the memo secret. But in April, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that portions of the memo containing legal analysis — but not those compiling the evidence against Mr. Awlaki — must be made public.

The memo argues that 18 U.S.C. § 1119, which addresses the foreign killing of US nationals, must incorporate the public authority exception, and it further argues that the exception permits either the US Department of Defense and/or the US Central Intelligence Agency to carry out the contemplated operation against Awlaki. 

The memo also argues that Awlaki’s US citizenship doesn’t preclude DoD or CIA action, citing Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 Supreme Court ruling that, subject to certain due process requirements, permits the detention of a US citizen as an ‘enemy combatant.’

Sharper legal minds will parse the contents of the memo, parts of which were redacted, and it presents many obviously difficult questions:

  • Even if the US military is justified in killing Awlaki under the public authority exception, the CIA’s justification is a lot more controversial because it’s a US government agency, not the military. The heavy redactions in the memo, as it relates to the CIA, make the Justice Department’s rationale unclear.
  • The US government’s statutory basis for targeting Awlaki lies in the  Authorization to Use Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF), originally enacted in 2001, which authorizes efforts not only against al-Qaeda, but also against forces  ‘associated with’ al-Qaeda, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The argument is that this as true in Yemen (which, the Justice Department attorneys admit, is ‘far from the most active theater of combat’ between the United States and al-Qaeda.’) as it is in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world that al-Qaeda and ‘associated forces’ operate. But that broad global-battlefield interpretation isn’t universally accepted, even among many members of the US Congress that enacted the AUMF.
  • The memo contemplates that Awlaki’s US citizenship bestows some protections, even in Yemen, under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Fourth Amendment. As regards the Fifth Amendment, the memo again points to Hamdi, which uses a Mathews v. Eldridge balancing test. In a scenario where a US citizen/enemy combatant poses a continued and imminent threat, the Justice Department attorneys argue that the public interest far outweighs the private interest of guaranteeing due process. Though the memo also acknowledges that Awlaki’s targeting constitutes a ‘seizure’ under the Fourth Amendment, the memo again points to the ‘reasonableness’ balancing tests elucidated by the Supreme Court in prior rulings on the constitutionality of seizures.

Nevertheless, the true heart of this case isn’t necessarily the black-letter legal reasoning, fascinating and controversial though it may be. Throughout the memo, the Justice Department attorneys essentially assume Awlaki’s guilt as fact. That’s fine, because no one was asking the Office of Legal Counsel to assess Awlaki’s guilt. But it’s one thing to argue that the AUMF applies in full force to the US government’s ability to target enemy combatants who are US citizens, and it’s quite another thing to argue that Awlaki was an enemy combatant in the first place.

Even if you are willing to defer to the Obama administration’s interpretation on all of the issues of the law involved — the applicability of the AUMF, the applicability of the public authority exception, the non-applicability of the Fifth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment or any mitigating factors that accrue on the basis of US citizenship — we still don’t know how the US government determines how a US citizen can be lawfully targeted for legal force.

The most relevant question, still unanswered, is how the US government concluded that Awlaki crossed the line from ‘preacher spewing noxious opinions’ to ‘operational al-Qaeda militant.’

First, what specific actions did Awlaki take that caused him to be enemy combatant?

Secondly, on the basis of what evidence did the US government determine that Awlaki was an enemy combatant?  

Finally, does anything about the process that the US government deployed in targeting Awlaki meet any kind of standards for due process, let alone those typically granted to US citizens under the Fifth Amendment?

On all three questions, we don’t know the answer because the Obama administration won’t release any information. Until and unless it does, the evidentiary standard for assassinating a US citizen abroad seems to be ‘when high-level government officials  conclude it.’ Continue reading What’s the factual basis for killing Awlaki?

14 in 2014: US midterm elections

obamain14

14. United States midterm elections, November 4.USflag

Though US president Barack Obama and his administration’s top officials — secretary of state John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and defense secretary Chuck Hagel — will continue to set the tone for US foreign policy through January 2017, US voters will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate, the upper house of the US Congress.

In particular, the Republican Party hopes to finish what it started with the 2010 midterm elections by winning control of both the House, where it currently enjoys a 232-to-200 majority, and the Senate, where the Democratic Party (and two independent allies) holds a 55-45 lead.  A bevy of gubernatorial elections (in 36 out of 50 states) will also decide who controls 12 out of the 15 most populous US states, including California, Florida, New York, Texas.

Midterm elections — and control of Congress — can effect huge results on American foreign policy.  Just recall the way that the 2006 midterm elections forced the nearly immediate resignation of former president George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and signaled a new era in the US occupation in Iraq.

If the Republicans succeed, it would make Congress a much more muscular voice of opposition to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiatives — most notably with regard to Iran, with which the administration hopes to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear energy program.  But the enhanced scrutiny from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other committees to hold hearings on everything from Iran to the 2011 Benghazi consulate attack in Libya to the Obama administration’s ongoing global efforts to stop terror from Pakistan to Somalia to Yemen, could complicate Obama’s final two years in office.  The Republicans would also be able to pass legislation designed to embarrass the Obama administration or attempt to rein in executive power.

 Next: 14 more to watch in 2014

Neither Republicans nor Democrats learned the real lesson of Benghazi

gty_benghazi_dm_130425_wblog

In the United States, ‘Benghazi’ has become a code word for conservative Republicans hinting at a dark cover-up within the administration of US president Barack Obama about who actually perpetrated the attack on September 11, 2012 against the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya’s second-most populous city.Libya_Flag_IconUSflag

The furor stems largely from comments by Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United  Nations and a candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state, that indicated the attack was entirely spontaneous, caused by protests to a purported film trailer, ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ that ridiculed Islam and the prophet Mohammed.  Republicans immediately seized on the comments, arguing that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack, which left four US officials dead, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya at the time, a volatile period following the US-backed NATO efforts to assist rebels in their effort to end the 42-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

An amazingly detailed report in The New York Times by David Kirkpatrick on Saturday reveals that there’s no evidence that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.  While it was more planned than the spontaneous anti-film riots that rocked the US embassy in Cairo the same day, the Benghazi incident was carried out by local extremist militias.  Kirkpatrick singles out, in particular, Abu Khattala, a local construction worker and militia leader, but he also identifies other radical militias within Benghazi, such as Ansar al-Sharia, which may not have been responsible, but still seem relatively sympathetic to anti-American sentiment:

Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, told The Washington Post that he disapproved of attacking Western diplomats, but he added, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”

Similarly named groups have emerged throughout north Africa and the Arabian peninsula over the past few years — a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia, not ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP), took control of portions of southern Yemen after the battle of Zinjibar in 2011.  The United States ultimately listed ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ as an alias for AQAP, but it’s unclear the degree to which the two are (or were) separate.  It also underscores the degree to which local Islamist groups like AQAP are necessarily fueled by local interests and concerns .  Most Yemenis fighting alongside AQAP are doing so for local reasons in a country that remains split on tribal and geographic lines — South Yemen could claim to be an independent state as recently as 1990.  Groups also named Ansar al-Sharia also operate  in Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco and Egypt, and some of them have links to al-Qaeda affiliates and personnel.  Others do not.

If Khattala, as The New York Times reports, is the culprit behind the consulate attack (and the US government continues to seek him in response to the attack), he fits the profile less of a notorious international terror mastermind and more of a local, off-kilter eccentric:

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, a member of Parliament from Benghazi close to many hard-line Islamists, who spent 22 years in Abu Salim, said, “Even in prison, he was always alone.”  He added: “He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”

Moreover, if there’s a scandal involving the Obama administration, it’s the way in which the United States came to enter the Libyan conflict in 2011.  The Obama administration refused to seek authorization from the US Congress when it ordered military action in Libya in support of the NATO mission and to establish a no-fly zone, pushing a potentially unconstitutional interpretation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires Congressional authorization for open-ended conflicts that last for more than 60 days.  Ironically, Obama’s case for ignoring Congress was actually stronger with respect to potential airstrikes on Syria earlier this year, though Obama’ ultimately decided to seek Congressional support for a potential military strike in August in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s military. 

Republicans, who control the US House of Representatives but not the US Senate, the upper house of the US Congress, just as they did in 2011, could have (and should have) held Obama more accountable for his decision vis-à-vis the War Powers Resolution.  Instead, they’ve colluded with a conservative echo chamber that mutters ‘Benghazi’ like some unhinged conspiracy theory, suggesting that somehow the Obama administration purposefully lied about what happened that day.  The reality is that the Obama administration was as caught off guard as anyone by the attack.  Democrats that would have howled with disgust over Benghazi if it had happened under the previous administration of Republican George W. Bush have remained incredibly docile during the Obama administration — to say nothing of the Obama administration’s encroaching internet surveillance, ongoing war in Afghanistan, frequent use of drone attacks and pioneering use of ‘targeted killings’ (including assassination of US citizens).

Kirkpatrick’s report showed that while US intelligence agencies were tracing an individual with tangential ties to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, they largely missed the more local threats like Khattala and Ansar al-Sharia:

The C.I.A. kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to Al Qaeda. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden.  Mr. Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi that was known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.  “We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”

That, in turn, highlights the real lesson of Benghazi — both the Obama administration and the national security apparatus that it has empowered, and the conservative opposition to the Obama administration are missing the larger problem with the way that the United States engages the world.  It’s a point that rings most clearly in the words of Khattala himself:

“The enmity between the American government and the peoples of the world is an old case,” he said. “Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”….

“It is always the same two teams, but all that changes is the ball,” he said in an interview. “They are just laughing at their own people.” Continue reading Neither Republicans nor Democrats learned the real lesson of Benghazi

Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

yemen graffiti drones

In a speech just four years ago, US admiral Mike Mullen, then chair of the joint chiefs of staff, outlined the US government’s approach to Yemen in an address to the US Naval War College.  By 2010, Yemen, which lies on the southwestern edge of the Arabian peninsula, had become an increasingly worrying front in US global efforts to confront Islamic terrorism:USflagyemen flag

Mullen said people ask him often if the United States is going to send troops to the nation. “The answer is we have no plans to do that, and we shouldn’t forget this is a sovereign country,” he said. “Sovereign countries get to vote on who comes in their country and who doesn’t.”

In what is the first vote of its kind, Yemen’s parliament voted on Sunday for a halt to US-initiated drone strikes that locals say killed more than a dozen civilians in a wedding party on December 11 — the attack, which took place in the central Yemeni province of al-Baydaa, is just one of many strikes in 2013, and it’s not the first one to have resulted in civilians deaths.  But the attack attracted widespread condemnation from both inside Yemen and internationally, leading to Sunday’s unanimous parliamentary vote.

In light of the ‘Mullen doctrine,’ you might expect the United States to pause its drone strikes on the country, right?

Wrong. The parliamentary vote wasn’t binding on the Yemeni government, and Yemen’s parliamentary powers pale in comparison to those of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, vice president between 1994 and 2012 and the hand-picked successor to Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni ruling party, the General People’s Congress (المؤتمر الشعبي العام‎, Al-Mo’tamar Ash-Sha’abiy Al-‘Aam), which itself controls 238 of the 301 seats in Yemen’s Majlis al-Nuwaab (House of Representatives).

Yemen, alongside Tunisia and Egypt, was among the vanguard of countries where the so-called Arab Spring peaked — though Saleh held on through mass protests in January and February 2011 against corruption and economic mismanagement, an assassination attempt in July 2011 left him severely injured and burned.  But the stage-managed transition from Saleh to Hadi has barely addressed the long-standing complaints of the Arab Spring protestors, let alone the more fundamental regional divides that have long plagued Yemen, which emerged as two quasi-independent states in 1918 out of the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Meanwhile, the US government denies that the December 11 drone strike killed anyone but ‘militants,’ despite evidence to the contrary and a deluge of protest across the Arab world.  Even the United Nations is now calling on the United States to provide answers about the error. 

As Adam Baron, a reporter based in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a wrote last week in Foreign Policy,

The exact nature of the error is still a matter of speculation. It was hard not to wonder if the wedding convoy was mistaken for something more sinister — that someone in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community concluded that vehicles carrying heavily armed wedding guests were actually an al Qaeda convoy. Some tribal contacts said that there were high-ranking militants near the site of the strike, and a Yemeni official briefed on security matters told me a vehicle hit in the attack had been linked to a prominent local al Qaeda leader. Either way, any “suspected militants” present were surrounded by civilian bystanders.

Nonetheless, the United States seems unlikely to swerve from its low-grade war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones will continue — and they will, in all likelihood, continue to kill innocent civilians, each of which has the potential to drive everyday Yemenis closer to AQAP and away from the United States.  Just last week, when AQAP attacked Yemen’s defense ministry, it also accidentally struck people in a hospital inside the ministry — and its leaders were fast to apologize for the error in targeting the hospital and agreed to pay ‘blood money’ to the relatives of those killed in the attack.

How did we get to the point where al-Qaeda seems more accountable than the Obama administration for civilian deaths in Yemen?

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Jeremy Scahill’s tour de force about the covert and clandestine operations of both the Obama administration and the administration of George W. Bush, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, calls into question the legality of much of the basis for the notion that the executive branch can claim the entire world is essentially the ‘battlefield’ for the global war on terror.  In particular, the Obama administration’s record in Yemen alone remains troubling.

Abdulrazaq Al-Jamal, an expert specializing in Al-Qaeda affairs, summarized the Yemeni argument against the US strikes in an interview earlier this week with the Yemen Times, arguing that the US drone strikes are illegal, that they encourage  AQAP and they expose Yemen’s own government as a failure:

I think there is no difference between the raid that targeted the wedding convoy in Ra’ada and the previous raids that targeted Al-Qaeda and any Yemeni [citizens]. American [spying] and shelling, in principle, is wrong because it kills illegally and without trial. I cannot differentiate between strikes that target Al-Qaeda members and strikes that [might] target citizens because these strikes are [made outside of the legal system]. I disagree with those who differentiate between them because it is a violation of Yemeni sovereignty to kill [any Yemeni citizens, be they Al-Qaeda members or not]….

I don’t think that American drones are [stopping tribes from] protecting Al-Qaeda members as [drones] may cause several tribes to [actually] join Al-Qaeda. I think that if American drones continue to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and kill civilians, the tribes will not only protect Al-Qaeda affiliates but will join Al-Qaeda themselves.  Seeking help from American drones [instead of handling Al-Qaeda itself] proves that the Yemeni government is a failed one.

Saleh, and now Hadi, have played a wily game of rope-a-dope with the United States in the post-9/11 era, seeking ever more funding and training for forces to fight ‘terrorism,’ while routinely deploying those forces in furtherance of pushing back against internal regionalists.  Most recently, that means the Shiite Houthi rebellion that began in the mid-2000s in northeastern Yemen, but it also includes forces to maintain tentative control over south Yemen, a wide swatch of country that includes not only the southern shore and the key port of Aden, but also the eastern half of Yemen that borders Oman.  Saleh, who came to power in north Yemen in 1978, only managed to unify the two parts of Yemen in 1990, and even then, fought a civil war in 1994 and continual unrest thereafter.  As AQAP grew in Yemen, south Yemen has become a territorial stronghold in a country where local power still runs on largely tribal lines, and the line between tribal leader and militant leader is often dazzlingly blurred.  While Yemen is also split on religious lines (around 45% to 50% of the country belongs to the Zaydi Shi’a sect and around 50% to 55% of the country is Sunni) Yemen’s Shiites are clustered in the northwestern corner of the country.

US meddling comes at a delicate time for Yemen, whose leaders are working on a new agreement to grant self-rule powers to the autonomous south in a move toward a more federal Yemen.  The powerful Yemeni Socialist Party (الحزب الاشتراكي اليمني, Al-Hizb Al-Ishtiraki Al-Yamani), which controlled south Yemen during its period of independence through 1990, opposes the latest effort, and it continues to support a two-region state, not the six-region state that Hadi and the current Yemen government supports.  If an agreement can be reached, Yemenis will vote in a constitutional referendum in February 2014.   Continue reading Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

Questions on the U.S. war on terror, Obama’s big speech and its effect on world politics

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There’s a lot to unpack from the wide-ranging speech that U.S. president Barack Obama gave this afternoon on the United States and its ongoing military action to combat terror organizations.USflag

I got the sense that Obama’s been anxious to make this speech for some time and to make the terms of debate over targeted attacks from unmanned aircraft — ‘drones’ — public.  The speech itself came after U.S. attorney general Eric Holder admitted in a letter for the first time that U.S. drones killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, as well as three other U.S. citizens accidentally.  It’s important to recall, furthermore, that Obama only first publicly acknowledged the drone strikes in Pakistan last year during an online chat.

It’s far beyond my blog’s realm to delve far into the speech in specificity — Benjamin Wittes has already done that in a series of blog posts (here and here) at Lawfare that are more articulate than anything I could produce in such a short time frame.  But when the president of the United States delivers a wide-ranging address on the U.S. war on terror, it has so many effects on world politics that it’s impossible not to think about how policy may change in the remaining years of the Obama administration.

Those policy decisions are incredibly relevant to international law and politics, but also in the domestic politics of two dozen countries — Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and so on.

What I do have, however, are a lot of questions that remain following the speech — perhaps even more than I had before I watched the speech.

  • Associated forces.  Obama mentioned al-Qaeda’s ‘associated forces’ four times, but what exactly is an associated force?  The lack of any meaningful definition lingered awkwardly with every mention.  In many ways, this goes to the heart of the legal issue with the drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia, and whether they’re even authorized under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).  Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) share a name, and key links, but it’s really difficult for me to believe that impoverished radical Yemenis or Tuaregs are really so associated with the original iteration of al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden led in 2001. Somalia’s al-Shabab is often described as a home-grown al-Qaeda, but is it an associated person? It’s even more doubtful than AQAP and AQIM.  Hamas and al-Qaeda are certainly mutually sympathetic and may well have mutual ties over the past two decades, but does that make Hamas an associated force?  In the same way, the Taliban in Afghanistan is not affiliated with the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (i.e., the Pakistani Taliban), but they’ve been a particular target of the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan — so much so that drone strikes were a top issue in Pakistan’s recent national elections.  So there’s a real question as to whether those actions legal — if those targets aren’t associated forces, the targets aren’t subject to the use of military force under the AUMF.
  • The precision of future drone strikes.  Obama has committed to more judicial use of drone strikes that have, as Obama admitted, killed civilians in the past, and though he didn’t exactly outline it in his speech, it’s reported that the U.S. military will take over some of the role that the Central Intelligence Agency has played in the drone strikes in recent years.  Nonetheless, the CIA has been reported to have used so-called ‘signature strikes,’ which target young men who live in areas known to be dominated by radical terrorist groups, though the strikes aren’t based on specific identification or intelligence that ties the targets to clear engagement against the United States.  Obama didn’t mention ‘signature strikes’ today.  But he argued that the use of drones is ‘heavily constrained’ and further bound ‘by consultations with partners’ and ‘respect for state sovereignty,’ and that drone strikes are only waged against terrorists ‘who pose a continuing and imminent threat’ when there are not other governments ‘capable of addressing’ that threat,’ and only when there’s a ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.’  That’s a much higher standard than what’s been reported in the past.  So was Obama describing past policy on drone strikes or future policy? What do assurances of more precision in the future mean when we don’t know the level of care with which the drone strikes have been effected in the past?
  • The oversight of future drone strikes.  It’s also unclear how the Obama administration believes oversight should be handled.  Obama, in his speech, noted that he’s asked his administration to review proposals for extending oversight on drone strikes, and he outlined several options, including something similar to the FISA courts that authorize electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens in the fight against terrorism.  But he’s in year five of his administration — shouldn’t this be something that his administration has already considered?  Will his administration be able to enact a system in time for Obama’s successor?  Will it even be based in statute so that it’s binding on future administrations?  All of this is unclear. Continue reading Questions on the U.S. war on terror, Obama’s big speech and its effect on world politics

U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad

In 2002 and 2003, assistant U.S. attorney general John Yoo, at the U.S. department of justice, authored now-infamous ‘torture memos’ providing legal justification for ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, which the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush would proceed to employ against ‘unlawful combatants,’ and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, according to many legal scholars (outside the Bush administration, at least).USflagPakistan Flag Iconsomaliayemen flag

Although we don’t know who wrote it or when it was written, there’s some parallelism in the ‘white paper’ from the justice department of U.S. president Barack Obama, made public today by NBC News, offering up the legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens who are senior operational leaders of al Qaeda or an associated force of al Qaeda.

Kudos to NBC News for obtaining the memo, which requires that any such U.S. citizen must be an ‘imminent’ threat, capture of the U.S. citizen must be ‘infeasible,’ and the strike must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.’  Each of those is defined in a manner that’s not exactly narrow — for example, as Michael Isikoff at NBC notes:

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

The United States, first under the Bush administration, but at a vastly accelerated pace under the Obama administration, has used unmanned drones to attack targets in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (to say nothing of what we don’t know about their use in more conventional military theaters, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya over the past decade) — it seems reasonable to believe that drones could soon be used in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave that country next year, and U.S. capability for drone use in Mali or elsewhere in north Africa would likewise not be a difficult task.

The leaked memo comes day before Congressional hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as Obama’s new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

There’s not much I can add to what others have already said about the Obama administration memo, though it may well come to define this administration’s unique ‘addition’ to the expanding nature of executive power in the United States, to the detriment of U.S. constitutional civil liberties and even international law.

In September 2011, the United States attacked two U.S. citizens, Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a drone attack in Yemen and, more perhaps troubling, killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen, in a subsequent attack.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Guardian in a long and thoughtful takedown of the leaked memo, takes special offense with the lack of due process for accused targets:

The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit….

This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.

In contrast, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union has written a quick reaction that’s subdued in contrast to Greenwald’s response:

My colleagues will have more to say about the white paper soon, but my initial reaction is that the paper only underscores the irresponsible extravagance of the government’s central claim. Even if the Obama administration is convinced of its own fundamental trustworthiness, the power this white paper sets out will be available to every future president—and every “informed high-level official” (!)—in every future conflict. As I said to Isikoff, that’s truly a chilling thought.

Although the memo itself could well stand as an important turning point in the Obama administration’s controversial justification for executing U.S. citizens without due process, what seems even clearer is that as Obama’s second term unfolds, we can expect the continuation and proliferation of the use of drone attacks.  Given the zeal with which U.S. policymakers are apparently pursuing U.S. citizens in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, it seems certain that the Obama administration is even more audacious in its approach to the protection of non-U.S. citizens.

Will Wilkinson at The Economist has recently argued that the Obama administration’s drone program as a whole fails the Kantian principle of ‘universal law’ — i.e., that the United States might not enjoy being on the receiving end of its own logic:

The question Americans need to put to ourselves is whether we would mind if China or Russia or Iran or Pakistan were to be guided by the Obama administration’s sketchy rulebook in their drone campaigns. Bomb-dropping remote-controlled planes will soon be commonplace. What if, by another country’s reasonable lights, America’s drone attacks count as terrorism? What if, according to the general principles implicitly governing the Obama administration’s own drone campaign, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue turns out to be a legitimate target for another country’s drones? Were we to will Mr Obama’s rules of engagement as universal law, a la Kant, would we find ourselves in harm’s way? I suspect we would.

As such, stunning as today’s news is, it’s worth pausing to consider the effects on each of the three countries where the Obama administration is known to be operating drones — as critics note, the drone attacks could ultimately backfire on long-term U.S. interests by antagonizing Muslims outside the United States and potentially radicalizing non-U.S. citizens into supporting more radical forms of terrorism against the United States in the future.

Continue reading U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad