Powerful Americans are beginning to listen to Farea al-Muslimi, a 23-year-old, California-educated Yemeni who wants to stop the drone strikes in his country. Including some in the White House.
Danger Room has confirmed that before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.
“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. In other words, he shouldn’t count on an Oval Office sit-down with the President — or even a quick meet with Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. And the meeting isn’t a response to al-Muslimi’s testimony yesterday.
But there’s buzz now around al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy. And that didn’t exist the last time he came to Washington — when al-Muslimi also had a White House meeting. In September, he recalls to Danger Room, al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another — he declines to give specifics — while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones. “It was a taboo,” al-Muslimi says, “like if you’re talking in a conservative society about sex.”
These days drones are sexy. Yesterday, al-Muslimi publicly told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the drones cause “psychological fear and terror” amongst average Yemenis and strengthen the very terrorists they’re supposed to kill. Even James “Hoss” Cartwright, a retired Marine general once in the thick of administration drone-strike deliberations, allowed during the hearing that the drones were costing America “the moral high ground.” A trail of D.C. journalists are competing for al-Muslimi’s time — that’s how rare it is for Americans to even to hear second-hand accounts of drone attacks. And the White House is still willing to meet with a man whose message is, he says simply, “stop this program.”
The White House says it wants to hear what al-Muslimi has to say about Yemen, as it has in the past. “We and other U.S. officials have previously met with Mr. al-Muslimi at the working level on prior trips to D.C., just as we meet with other figures from across the spectrum of Yemeni society,” the White House official adds. “The meeting is to continue our broad dialogue with figures from across Yemeni society, not to specifically discuss Mr. al-Muslimi’s testimony.”
Still, Al-Muslimi doesn’t exactly have high hopes for what he can get out of his White House, Senate or other Washington meetings. “We think the administration already knows the blowback of this,” he says as he munches on a sandwich between appointments. “This is their baby. There are lots of people in the administration [for] whom the drone program are their babies. And if this program is over, they’re going to lose their jobs.” As someone whose home village of Wessab recently hit by a drone, al-Muslimi is hoping instead that his message can resonate to the American public, especially after last week’s attack in Boston, which took place the same week.
“The difference between me and you is you are [upset] about Boston,” he says. “I was [upset] about Boston and my village.”
That’s because al-Muslimi is anything but an America-hater. Thanks to a State Department program, he went to high school near Rosemont in southern California (an “awesome” place, he says). He’s into Mexican food, but McDonald’s is his favorite thing to eat in the States. It’s not just that he’s outraged by innocents killed by the drones, he’s disappointed: he says he cannot believe that America would do something that would make al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the affiliate is known, look like “heroes.”
By substituting the drones for Yemeni soldiers who might capture suspected terrorists instead of blowing them up, “You’re making me not believe in my army,” al-Muslimi says. “You’re banning me from fighting this war by my own rules of the game. Instead, you have made AQAP a hero. Even when you don’t kill civilians and you miss AQAP, they are heroes, because all the people look at them like, ‘Ha, ha.’ You’re the greatest power in the world and you make them look like a role model.”
And it leaves him, he says, without a counterargument about the awesomeness he saw in America. Once that argument was the election of Barack Obama. “I used to tell my village, ‘Look how great it is that this person came to power and he was a minority, one day [hundreds of] years ago they were slaves’ — he droned them,” al-Muslimi says. End of discussion.
The counterargument is that without the drone strikes, AQAP, which has attempted (unsuccessfully) to attack America at home, would run rampant. Instead, the Obama administration contends, AQAP has now been driven out of the areas the terrorist group once overran. Al-Muslimi isn’t buying, saying that all the militants did was shave their beards, so the U.S. thinks they’re gone.
What’s more, the variated group — “AQAPs” is how al-Muslimi describes a collection of people who span from hardcore violent religious fanatics to bored corner boys — gets tacit support because it has a better record for probity and competence than the Yemeni government, which is both an American client and barely present in villages like Wessab. Unlike the Americans, AQAP actually pays reparations to civilians caught up in its war with the central Yemeni government.
It’s not that AQAP will disappear if the drones leave — al-Muslimi is clear that the U.S. shadow wars didn’t create the group — but the U.S. needs to “get the drone out of my way so I can work on the real problems of Yemen.”
There may be some reason — however minor — to believe that al-Muslimi’s message might resonate after his White House meeting. Obama administration officials are said to be wary that their national-security legacy is an unaccountable process for delivering robotic death around the world, and asking themselves how they might wind the drone strikes down. The United Nations’ drone inquisitor explicitly stated he thinks the new CIA director, John Brennan, has the interest and the influence to rein in the drones, thanks in part to his status as the program’s old advocate. After years of all-but-blind support, there are now stirrings in Congress to limit Obama’s targeted killing efforts. Maybe that explains why al-Muslimi is getting a White House invitation.