Donald Trump has more than doubled the number of covert US airstrikes in Yemen compared with the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, new estimates show.
The rise, combined with Trump’s rollback of Obama-era safeguards, has sparked renewed concern from MPs and human rights groups over the UK’s role in US counter-terrorism operations, in Yemen and other countries with which Britain is not at war.
The number of covert American airstrikes in Yemen more than doubled in 2017, rising to 93 compared with a total of 40 the previous year, according to figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks US air and drone operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.
At least two children have been killed in US airstrikes in Yemen this year, according to a report by Reprieve. Brothers Ahmed and Mohammed al-Khobze, both under 15, died in a US strike in Yakla on 6 March, local residents said. The US military have said they were not aware of “credible civilian casualty allegations” in the 6 March strike.
Both Reprieve and TBIJ report at least 30 civilians have been killed so far this year, including 10 children, as a result of covert US operations, although the figures recorded by the groups have not been reported officially by the US military. Most died in a Navy Seal raid on the village of Yakla, on 29 January, in which a Navy Seal also died.
No casualties were recorded by TBIJ as a result of covert US operations in Yemen in 2016.
The US is now carrying out at least one covert strike every two days. If the rate is sustained to the end of the year, it would represent a fivefold increase in airstrikes across the country.
The report by Reprieve draws on interviews with individuals on the ground and press reports of US operations in Yemen. Trump is accused of “ripping up” rules introduced by Obama to reduce civilian casualties and limit the circumstances in which the US carries out counter-terrorism operations in countries like Yemen, where it is not at war.
There is “mounting evidence” for British support for US operations in Yemen and elsewhere, Reprieve said. This includes press reports of British bases providing intelligence and operational support for drone strikes, and of British personnel on the ground in Yemen providing intelligence for selecting targets and directing drone strikes.
Earlier this year, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said: “We continue to work with regional and international partners to tackle the threat posed by terrorist organisations including the AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula].”
Reprieve described the escalation in US airstrikes in Yemen as a “wake-up call” and demanded the UK government publish its secret guidance to British personnel involved in US drone strikes.
Katie Taylor, deputy director of Reprieve, said: “Since taking office, President Trump has unleashed a barrage of strikes on Yemen in a flagrant breach of international law, killing scores of civilians and making a fragile country even less stable.
“Secret strikes that kill children in countries where we are not at war will do nothing to make the world safer. It’s shameful that the UK provides operational support for this disastrous strike programme.
“The UK government must urgently publish its secret guidance – or so-called joint targeting policy – and explain Britain’s role in Trump’s secret Yemen war.”
Labour MP Clive Lewis, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drones and former shadow defence minister, said: “President Trump’s plans to give greater authority to the CIA to conduct secret drone strikes out of the view of public scrutiny and to widen the rules of engagement should be of real and immediate global concern.
“The UK government must provide assurances to parliament that neither intelligence sharing nor operational provision make the UK complicit in the operations of our closest ally that we would not carry out ourselves.
“In light of the recent changes in US policy, the UK has an opportunity to emerge as a global standard setter for the transparent, accountable use of drones and the minimisation of civilian harm.”
It is not known how many US airstrikes were carried out by drones in 2017.
In March, Trump exempted Yemen from constraints brought in by Obama to reduce civilian casualties and limit the circumstances in which the US carries out counter-terrorism operations in countries with which it is not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.
President Trump’s administration is now preparing to further dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields, including an expansion of the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes in a number of countries, both in and out of war zones. While administration officials have agreed they will keep in place an important constraint for such attacks, the “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, the changes have been criticised as potentially leading to additional civilian casualties.
The joint committee on human rights has raised strong concerns about the UK’s involvement in the US targeted killing programme, noting that the UK’s intelligence agencies work “hand in glove” with the US.
The all-party parliamentary group is holding an inquiry into how the UK works with allies and coalition partners in armed drone use. It is expected to make recommendations on transparency and accountability by the end of the year.
In response to calls for assurances over the UK’s role in US covert airstrikes in Yemen and for the publication of guidance, the Ministry of Defence said they would not comment on “covert operations or intelligence matters”.
– The Guardian