A drone strike killed five people last week in the remote Yemeni village of Wessab. Locals are still scared. Many knew at least one of the men who was killed. But they didn't know that he was suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda. If they'd known, they would've helped to arrest him, or forced him to leave their village, or at least kept their distance lest they be killed or maimed. It terrifies them that they didn't even know he was a target. What if they'd been standing next to him?
What if their children had been standing next to him?
Americans wouldn't normally hear about how poor Yemeni villagers reacted to a drone strike. But Wessab is the home village of Farea al-Muslimi, a 22-year-old democracy activist who is among the most pro-American voices in Yemen. "I don't know if there is anyone on earth that feels more thankful to America than me," he said Tuesday in testimony before a Senate committee. "In my heart, I know I can only repay the opportunities, friendship, warmth, and exposure your country provided me by being their ambassadors to Yemenis for the rest of my life."
He is just the sort of cultural ambassador the U.S. is eager to recruit. "I strongly believe that I have helped improve America's image, perhaps in ways that an official ambassador or other diplomats cannot," he explained. "I have access to ordinary Yemenis. For me, helping the people of my country understand and know the America that I have experienced is a passion, not a career."
But his efforts are being undermined -- and we're the culprits. In emotional testimony, he stated that the Obama Administration's drone strikes in Yemen "have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible" and done more to empower al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula than to weaken it. This is his story and his vital advice, drawn from his prepared remarks.
The remote mountain village of Wessab is nine hours' drive from Yemen's capital. Farea al-Muslimi was raised there on a farm, where his family lived off fruit, vegetables, and livestock. He would have 19 siblings but for the fact that seven died as a result of inadequate medical care.
His life changed forever in 9th grade.
Thanks to a scholarship from the U.S. State Department, he was able to study for a year at the American English Center in Yemen, his first opportunity to see the world beyond his small village. He was subsequently given a scholarship through a State Department exchange program meant to improve understanding between Americans and Yemenis. He calls the year he spent at Rosamond High School in Rosamond, California, one of the richest and best of his life.
"I made exceptional friends with my American classmates and had the most interesting and enriching experience one could imagine. I filled my days spending time with American friends, learning about American culture, visiting churches almost every Sunday, learning about Christianity for the first time in my life, managing the school's basketball team, walking the Relay for Life, and even participating in a trick or treat at Halloween. In school, I won the Academic Excellence award in my U.S. History class, even ahead of my American classmates," he stated. "The most exceptional experience was coming to know someone who ended up being like a father and is my best friend in the United States. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force. Most of my year was spent with him and his family. He came to the mosque with me and I went to church with him. he taught me about his experiences in America and I taught him about my life in Yemen. We developed an amazing friendship that overcame our very different backgrounds."
A final State Department scholarship funded his college education at the American University of Beirut, where he recently graduated with a degree in public policy. He now works as a democracy activist and a freelance journalist, often helping Western journalists to report in his country. That work has afforded him the opportunity to interview people in the three regions where the Obama Administration has focused its quasi-secret targeted-killing operation in Yemen.
The insights gleaned from his reporting are themselves valuable.
"I have met with dozens of civilians who were injured during drone strikes and other air attacks," al-Muslimi states. "I have met with relatives of people who were killed as well as numerous eyewitnesses. They have told me how these air strikes have changed their lives for the worst." On one occasion, he met a man who described how "he stood helplessly as his 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter died in his arms on the way to the hospital." The man's house was targeted by mistake. He reported on another strike that killed 40 civilians and spoke to a 12-year-old boy who cried while describing being afraid of the drones buzzing overhead every night.
In al-Muslimi's estimation, "the killing of innocent civilians by U.S. missiles in Yemen is helping to destabilize my country and create an environment from which AQAP benefits." They use innocents killed by drone strikes as a recruiting tool and rely on the impression drones create that America is at war with all Yemenis. One little boy, whose father was killed in a drone strike, carries a picture of a plane in his pocket and says he wants revenge against his father's killer, "America." Drone strikes "are the face of America to many Yemenis," he reports. "If America is providing economic, social and humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the vast majority of the Yemeni people know nothing about it. Everyone in Yemen, however, knows about America and its drones."