London, United Kingdom (Reprieve) – The British government is directly involved in the covert US programme in Yemen, including secret drone strikes, it’s emerged, despite having denied such involvement for several years.
An investigation by Vice News, published today, has revealed that UK personnel have played a “crucial and sustained role” in the programme, with UK officials taking part in so-called “hits”, “triangulat[ing]” intelligence for target lists, preparing “target packages”, and participating a “joint operations room” with US and Yemeni forces in support of strikes.
A former senior CIA official called the UK’s role “pretty critical”, while the former Foreign Minister of Yemen said the US and the UK had a “blank check” to carry out the operations.
The reports appear to contradict years of denials by the UK about involvement in US operations in Yemen. In 2014, the Ministry of Defence told human rights organization Reprieve – which assists the civilian victims of drone strikes – that: “The UK does not provide any military support to the US campaign of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) strikes on Yemen”, and that “use of RPAS strikes for counter-terrorist purposes is a matter for the states involved.” The government denied knowledge of an ‘operations room’ involved in the identification of targets. Ministers also told MPs, in 2014, that there were only two UK military personnel present in Yemen.
According to today’s reports, British military personnel have been seconded to UK intelligence agencies to carry activities in Yemen under the aegis of the Foreign Office. The arrangement appears to mirror that of the US, where US Air Force pilots are seconded to the CIA for drone strikes, which are carried out in secret. A British official confirmed to Vice News that these seconded personnel were involved in the drone programme, saying: “Once they are seconded, the MoD loses any control over what they get up to.”
The UK activities are understood to have continued despite reports of large numbers of civilian casualties from US drone strikes in Yemen. Among the Yemeni civilians killed in strikes carried out with UK involvement was Nasser Salim, a 19 year old student who was hit in May 2012. Nasser – whose family are assisted by Reprieve – was killed in what was the fourth US attempt to kill a militant, Fahd al Quso. A recent investigation by Reprieve found that such ‘multiple kills’ of named targets are common in the US drone programme, with some 1,147 unknown people killed in attempts to target 41 named individuals.
News of the UK’s role comes ahead of the expected release, later this month, of the first White House estimate of the numbers of civilians killed by US drones. Asked about the issue last weekend, President Obama said that there was “no doubt” that civilians had been killed by US drones.
Commenting, Jen Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve, said:
“For years, the government has denied any involvement in US’s covert drone war in Yemen, saying it’s ‘a matter for the states involved.’ It’s now beyond dispute the UK is one of those states – working hand in glove with the Americans to create the very ‘kill list’ that drives those strikes. Even more disturbing, the UK has copied wholesale the US model of outsourcing the military to the intelligence agencies in order to hide their involvement and avoid any accountability.
“Nasser Salim’s family, and the hundreds of other innocent civilians killed by this failed programme, deserve answers. There needs to be an urgent inquiry into just how far the UK’s involvement in this covert drone programme goes – both in Yemen and beyond.”
This report prepared by Reprieve.