Just hours into Trump’s presidency, suspected U.S. drone strikes killed three alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen’s southwestern Bayda province.
According to anonymous security and tribal officials, two strikes killed an area field commander by the name of Abu Anis al-Abi, along with two others. Considering the two others are identified merely as “alleged al-Qaeda operatives,” it seems more than apparent that Trump will continue Obama’s longstanding practice of classifying any military-age male in the strike zone as a combatant, whether or not they were actually al-Qaeda militants.
Before Obama left office last week, U.S. intelligence officials claimed 117 civilians had been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere during his presidency. This was the second public assessment issued in response to mounting pressure for more transparency regarding Obama’s counterterrorism programs, and it was ludicrously inaccurate. Regardless, the program shows no signs of stopping.
According to CNN, the U.S. military carried out drone strikes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, killing a “handful of al Qaeda militants.” The strikes did not require Trump’s signature to be delivered, and in practice, the authority to order strikes has been passed down to a four-star commander.
Should Trump decide to allow these strikes to continue, he will be keeping Obama’s controversial program alive despite the fact that the drone program has been documented as grounds for war crimes investigations, mostly due to its reliance on “signature strikes” and so-called “double tap” strikes. A “signature strike” is a strike that targets people suspected of being militants even when the exact identity of the target is unknown. The assessment is based on “behavioral characteristics” that could be classified as typical of militants. A “double tap” is where an initial drone strike is launched and followed by a second strike that targets those who come to aid and rescue the initial victims.
A signature strike is a clear violation of the international legal principle of distinction, namely that combatants and civilians are to be stringently distinguished to reduce the risk of civilian harm. If the identity of the individual is not known but an assessment is based solely on their behavior, almost any civilian could be killed as a result. A “double tap” would be illegal for the same reason; if the identities of those killed initially are unknown, those who jump to their rescue would also be unknown and could very well be civilians — or even aid workers.
The Trump administration appears to be continuing a highly controversial mode of warfare in Yemen — the poorest nation in the Arab world — at the same time the country faces a humanitarian crisis due to a brutal U.S.-backed, Saudi-led assault.