On August 29, 2012, a military drone flying in the skies high above Yemen allegedly launched an aerial attack that resulted in the deaths of Ahmed Salem Bin Ali Jaber and Waleed Bin Ali Jaber—two men, family members claim, who were not the intended targets of the drone strike at all.
Now, more than four years after his nephew and brother-in-law were killed by missile fire, Yemeni engineer Faisal bin Ali Jaber made history this week, appearing at a U.S. appellate court hearing on Tuesday to demand an apology from the American government for his family members' deaths. It was another milestone in a groundbreaking lawsuit filed by Jaber in 2015 against the Obama administration over the incident.
In his suit, Jaber asks that the drone strike responsible for killing his family members be declared unlawful. He is also seeking an apology from President Obama for their deaths. According to Reprieve, the UK-based human rights organization backing Jabar's suit, this marks the "first ever US appellate court hearing in a case brought by a civilian victim of the covert drone program."
In February of this year, Jaber's suit was dismissed by the lower courts, who ruled that hearing the case "would require the court to second-guess the executive’s policy determinations in matters that fall outside of judicial capabilities." In other words, the court was unwilling to challenge Obama's authority when it comes to drone strikes. By appealing that decision, however, Jaber has pushed his case into new territory. The case could wind up peeling back some of the layers of secrecy surrounding America's use of drones in its wars.
According to Jaber, the drone strike in question occurred after his brother-in-law Saelm had given an anti-Al Qaeda sermon at a family wedding. Following the sermon, the family got word that several men were looking to speak with Salem—a request he eventually agreed upon, taking Waleed along as a precautionary measure. As the two met with the men, missiles rained down upon them, killing the group instantly.
"It was something impossible to imagine for a person," Jaber explained to ABC News. "I stood on body parts of people. The smell was very strange. I don’t know what was mixed with what — blood, mixed with the smell of ammunition. I think I lost consciousness, I imagined that nothing had happened and went back to smiling."
Jaber claims that in the aftermath of the attack, the Yemeni government gave him $100,000, saying that it was from the American government without any further explanation or apology. According to the Los Angeles Times, he has not spent the money.
Speaking with the New York Times at the time that Jaber's suit was initially filed, an attorney with Reprieve described it as "a last resort to get something that should be very simple: an acknowledgment that his relatives were wrongly killed, and a public apology for their tragic deaths."
While the National Security Council declined to comment to ABC News on the lawsuit, Jabar's quest for answers has received support from a group of military veterans formerly involved with America's drone program, who publicly endorsed the suit in early September.
In backing Jaber, the group explained that they see it as a way to show the flaws in the drone program after having "witnessed a secret, global system without regard for borders, conducting widespread surveillance with the ability to conduct deadly targeted killing operations."
In a letter to President Obama sent on the eve of this week's appearance in the appellate court, Jaber wrote:
The only thing that can prevent the mistakes of the past from repeating themselves in the future is accountability. True accountability does not come from policy documents absent facts. Nor does it come from numbers, like those you released in July, which tell us nothing about who has been counted, and more crucially, who has not.
Speaking with ABC News, Jaber offered a hopeful diagnosis for the future, saying "Instead of paying money in a secret way, the U.S. could announce a project in [his family's] name carried out by members of civil society in support of the village that was hit."