In the dawn hours of Dec. 24, 2009, a cruise missile launched by the United States struck a farmhouse in the Rafdh Valley, located in Yemen’s Shabwa province, killing between 5-34 militants associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, colloquially known as AQAP. While there are no known reports of civilians being killed or injured in the strike, the number of militants, as well as their rank and significance, is contested.
On the day the strike took place, the Yemeni embassy in Washington D.C. issued a press release taking credit for the strike. The Yemeni government claimed that several high-profile AQAP militants, such as AQAP’s commander of operations in Yemen, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and his deputy, Said al-Shihri, had been killed. The Yemeni military, officials claimed, had successfully carried out a “decapitating strike” against Al Qaeda’s network in Yemen. A Reprieve report titled “You Never Die Twice” added that Fahd al-Qasaa was also targeted in this strike.
Another name was listed that immediately caught the attention of western media: Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric who had exchanged emails with the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan. Several outlets, such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and Reuters, writing in the days following the strike, claimed that Awlaki could be among the dead.
It did not take long for the government’s narrative to change. While most reporting from the week following the Dec. 24 strike put the number of militants killed at 30-34, some publications, such as The Guardian and the Washington Post, cited reports that only five AQAP militants had been buried.
This number was the one later cited by the New York Times in more in-depth reporting on the raid published in July and August 2010, and that reporting states that the five militants killed were low-level fighters, some of them even lodging with AQAP for the first time the night they were killed.
In the days following the strike, other details soon emerged that cast doubt on the Saleh government’s narrative, already viewed skeptically by the Yemeni public. On Dec. 25, 2009, CBS News stated that Awlaki was probably still alive. On Dec. 26, the Associated Press reported that Awlaki was “alive and well.”
Jeremy Scahill, reporting for The Nation on March 30, 2011, noted that “In the coming months clear evidence that Awlaki, Wuhayshi and Shihri were not killed in the attack would emerge, as each of them appeared in video or audio messages.” Later documentation shows that Awlaki was killed in September of 2011.
It soon became clear that the Yemeni government wasn’t honest about who conducted the Dec. 24 strike, as well as a strike one week earlier on Dec. 17 in the province of Abyan. Confirming the suspicions of many in the Yemeni public, evidence emerged that the Dec. 17 strike had been conducted not by the Yemeni government as was originally claimed, but by the United States.
A Reuters article published on 3rd December 2010, nearly a year later, reported that the President Saleh admitted lying to the Yemeni public about the cruise missile strikes on Al-Qaeda in December 2009 saying they were the work of Yemeni forces, with support from US intelligence. This article draws on a diplomatic cable dated 4 January 2010, which refers to a meeting between CENTCOM Commander General Petraeus and President Saleh on 2 January 2010 during which it reports that Petraeus congratulated Saleh on recent operations against Al Qaeda and told him of an increase in security assistance to Yemen. The cable also says that President Saleh praised the 17th and 24th December strikes, but that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in the Abyan strike, which occurred on 17th. The cable further says that “Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are ‘not very accurate’ and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. ‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,’ Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.”
Taken together, the Dec. 17 and Dec. 24 strikes represented an escalation of American military involvement in Yemen, the early stages of a quiet and opaque war that the Obama administration would fight against AQAP in which Yemeni civilians often paid a high price for botched strikes.
In Shabwa, the New York Times reported in July 2010 that in the days following the Dec. 24 strike, locals decided that the presence of AQAP militants had become a liability, and asked them to leave the area.
The US strikes in Yemen also ignited fierce debate in the United States over the limitations, or lack thereof, applied to the conduct of the war on terror in regions such as Yemen, outside of officially delineated battle spaces such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Due to the nature of both CIA and US military involvement in Yemen, and the lack of official acknowledgement by the CIA for their involvement, Airwars grades this event as “declared” following the revelations of US role contained in the released US diplomatic cables, in lieu of public reporting on CIA actions. It is unclear if US involvement in the operation was limited to providing intelligence and munitions, or also included more extensive operational actions
The incident occured around dawn.
Sources (24) [ collapse]
Reports of the incident mention Wadi Rafd (وادي رفض), for which the generic coordinates are: 14.185053, 46.948228. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.
US Forces Assessment:
Original strike reports
(S/NF) Saleh praised the December 17 and 24 strikes
against AQAP but said that "mistakes were made" in the
killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that
the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of
an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into
a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister
Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of
terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment:
Saleh's conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he
has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in
Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to
determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage.
End Comment.) AQAP leader Nassr al-Wahishi and extremist
cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may still be alive, Saleh said, but
the December strikes had already caused al-Qaeda operatives
to turn themselves in to authorities and residents in
affected areas to deny refuge to al-Qaeda. Saleh raised the
issue of the Saudi Government and Jawf governorate tribal
sheikh Amin al-Okimi, a subject that is being reported
through other channels.