The New York Times reported on January 26 that “a CIA drone strike in Yemen … killed three suspected al Qaeda fighters on Monday.”
How did they know the identity of the dead? As usual, it was in part because “American officials said.”
There was not a whiff of scepticism about this claim despite the fact that “a senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, declined to confirm the names of the victims” and “a CIA spokesman declined to comment”.
The article did cite what it called “a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), who provided the names of the three victims, one of whom was “Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi, a Yemeni teenager whose father and brother were previously killed in American drone strikes”.
The article added that “the al Qaeda member did not know Mr. Jahmi’s age but said he was a member of the terrorist group”.
In fact, as The Guardian reported on February 10, Jahmi was 13-years-old.
Just months earlier, the Yemeni teenager told that paper that “he lived in constant fear of the ‘death machines’ in the sky that had already killed his father and brother”. It was 2011 when “an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels”.
In the recent strike, Mohammed was killed along with his brother-in-law and a third man.
Mohammed’s older brother, Maqded, said he “saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal” — undoubtedly quite similar to the way the Jordanian combat pilot looked after he was burned alive last month by ISIS.
That is not an accident: the weapons the US military uses are deliberately designed to incinerate people to death. The missiles shot by their drones are named “Hellfire”.
Of his younger, now-deceased 13-year-old brother, Maqded told The Guardian: “He wasn’t a member of al-Qaida. He was a kid.”
There are a few observations worth making about this repugnant episode:
The US media just got done deluging the US public with mournful stories about the Jordanian soldier, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, making him a household name.
As is often the case for victims of US’s adversaries, the victim is intensely humanised. The public learns all sorts of details about their lives, hears from their grieving family members, wallows in the tragedy of their death.
By stark contrast, I’d be willing to bet that the name “Mohammed Tuaiman al-Jahmi” is never uttered on mainstream US TV. Most Americans, by design, will have no idea that their government just burned a 13-year-old boy to death and then claimed he was a terrorist.
If they do know, the boy will be kept hidden, dehumanised, nameless, without the aspirations or dreams or grieving parents on display for victims of the US’s adversaries.
When I was in Canada last October during two violent attacks — one in southern Quebec and the other in parliament in Ottawa — both soldiers killed were understandably the subject of endless, intense media coverage featuring their lives, dreams and grieving parents.
But I’d bet that the Canadian public was incapable of naming even a single foreign individual killed by their own government over the last decade.
It is worth considering the extreme propaganda impact this disparity has, the way in which the US media is so eagerly complicit in sustaining ongoing American militarism and violence by disappearing victims of U.S. violence while endlessly heralding the victims of its adversaries.
I have no idea whether this 13-year-old boy was “a member of al-Qaeda”, whatever that might mean for a boy that young. But neither does the NYT, which is why it is incredibly irresponsible for media outlets reflexively to claim that those killed by US drone strikes are terrorists.
That is especially true since the NYT itself previously reported that the Obama administration has redefined “militant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants”.
In this case, Mohammed did not even qualify for that Orwellian redefinition, yet still got called a terrorist. Whatever else is true, extreme scepticism is required before claiming that the victims of the latest US drone strike are terrorists, but that scepticism is almost never included.
The next time there is a violent attack on the west by a Muslim, and journalists immediately declare that Islam is the culprit and set out to demonise those who suggest it might be “blowback”, perhaps this incident can be remembered.
Does one really need to blame a radical version of religious dogma to understand why people get really angry when they hear — yet again — that the children of their nation have been incinerated by another US drone?
If it were US teenagers rather than Yemeni ones being frequently burned to death — on US soil rather than Yemeni soil — does it take any effort to understand why there would be widespread calls for violence against the perpetrators in response?
Consider how much US rage and violence was unleashed by a single-day attack on American soil 13 years ago.
In fact, if it were the case that this 13-year-old boy was a “member of AQAP”, is it hard to understand why? Do we need to resort to claims that some primitive, inscrutable religion is to blame, or does this, from The Guardian article, make more sense: “When the Guardian interviewed Mohammed last September, he spoke of his anger towards the US government for killing his father.
“They tell us that these drones come from bases in Saudi Arabia and also from bases in the Yemeni seas and America sends them to kill terrorists, but they always kill innocent people. But we don’t know why they are killing us.
“In their eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”
In 2009, the US was caught using cluster bombs in Yemen in an attack that slaughtered 35 women and children. Obama then successfully demanded that the Yemeni journalist who proved that the attack was from the US, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, be jailed for years.
In December 2013, a US drone strike killed 12 people as they traveled to a wedding.
What is confounding, irrational and inscrutable is not that people react by turning to “radicalism” and violence.
It is that many journalists and officials in Western nations — after the West spends decades invading, occupying, jailing without charges and dropping bombs on nations around the world, frequently killing innocents, including children — act shocked and surprised when people in those countries, or who identify with them, want to bring violence back in return.
That is a sentiment grounded in deep irrationality, blind nationalism, and primitive tribalism.
[Abridged from The Intercept.]