Nobody wants to talk about Yemen. Is the truth just too embarrassing?

Over the last year, story after story has come out of Yemen that is horrible. And yet nobody – well, almost nobody – is talking about it.

The Yakla raid

Let’s start with the Yakla raid. On January 29, 2017, a United States-led Special Operations Forces operation was carried out in Yakla village in central Yemen. Authorized by President Donald Trump, its goal was to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also, as claimed by unnamed sources, to target the group’s leader Qasim al-Raymi.

Not only was al-Raymi untouched, but it now appears, according to ABC News that the main Yemeni figure killed – tribal chief Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab – was a tribal leader who was allied to the country’s U.S. and Saudi-backed president.  (A more detailed account of the raid is given here, and makes for uncomfortable reading.)

Furthermore, survivors and witnesses say at least 25 Yemenis were killed, including 10 children and nine women, raising outrage in Yemen and prompting the government to ask Washington for a review of the raid.

U.S. Central Command claimed that 14 al-Qaida militants were killed. It counted among them al-Dhahab. If, as now seems possible, he was not part of al-Qaida, that figure of 14 seems questionable. Indications seem to be that all were low-level operatives.

Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.  The number of people killed on American soil by al-Qaida attacks in the last 15 year is zero.   Was getting some intelligence on them really worth killing around 25 civilians, including 10 children and 9 women?

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the raid will turn out to have helped rather than hurt al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Hence, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

“Far from delivering a blow to AQAP, the raid may have strengthened it. “Groups like AQAP will contend [this attack] shows Trump is making good on his campaign pledge,” said Letta Tayler, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even if Trump wasn’t serious, armed extremists are likely to jump on every photo of a Yemeni child killed in a US strike as a recruitment tool.”

“The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics… plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” said International Crisis Group in a report released three days after the attack.”

And some things need to be noted: The operatives who killed these children

  • were not acting in self defense – in any meaningful sense of the term. (They were the attackers.)
  • will not be punished for shooting unarmed civilians.
  • were not working for a Middle Eastern autocratic government, but for a western democratic government.
  • were not working for the government of the country where the killings occurred, but for a country thousands of miles away – a country that has never been attacked by Yemen, and is not at war with the Yemen.

I find that shocking.  How is this not a crime?  How is this not breaking the 6th commandment?

Furthermore, most voters in America seem completely relaxed about the fact that their armed forces are launching attacks that are killing children and other civilians in far away countries. What would people in America think if the armed forces of an Arab nation raided a small town in America, and in the process, killed 10 children? And does the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6:31 (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”) have any relevance to this situation?  Does it apply to the actions of nations and governments?

But it gets stranger.

In Yemen, there is a civil war going on. It’s a complicated affair, and broadly speaking, there are three sides – the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia; the Houthi forces, who hold the capital (Sana’a); and al-Qaida. However, a lot of the time al-Qaida have been fighting informally alongside the Hadi government against their common enemy, the Houthis. And since the USA is backing the Saudi Arabians and the Hadi government, they are sometimes sort of on the same side as al-Qaida.

(By the way, the ABC News story refers to the Houthi rebels as Shiites. This is not true. According to the Carnegie Endowment, until 2011, “the term “Shia” was not used in the Yemeni public to refer to any Yemeni groups or individuals. The Houthis do not follow the Twelver Shia tradition predominant in Iran, but adhere to the Zaidiya, which in practice is closer to Sunni Islam, and had expressed no solidarity with other Shia communities.”)

Saudi Bombing

Which brings us to the other side of the horror of Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of civilian targets following its invasion of Yemen.  In the latest, eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an air raid on a funeral reception (not the first time the Saudis have bombed a funeral) on the 15th February, near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a.  (Edit: The death toll has now risen to 21)

And the Saudi-led coalition has the support of the American and British governments.

Daniel Larison’s comment is worth repeating:

“The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.”

And it is not just America’s reputation. The British government rejected the recommendation of two select committees to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and is now facing a court case brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which claims that “the indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen means there is a significant risk that British arms are being used in strikes that break international humanitarian law.”

What is even more tragic in all this is that Saudi Arabia is not only killing civilians by bombing them, but is also enforcing a blockade that effectively aims to starve the Houthi areas into submission, and has caused massive hardship. According to the United Nations, “About 3.3 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished in Yemen, including 462,000 children under five suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” and the country has been described as being on the brink of famine.  What Saudi Arabia is doing is serious.  Indeed, Kevin Watkins of Save the Children has described it as a “de facto a humanitarian blockade from the Saudis, which incidentally is a war crime.”

And the silence is deafening.  A Yemeni woman, quoted in the Guardian, said “I also blame the whole world for watching us dying and for their silence against [the] Saudi-led coalition.”

But the blame lies more with some parts of the world than others.  Daniel Larison calls it an enduring blot on America’s reputation. But I think one could go further than that. This is not just a blot on the reputations of America and Britain. The actions of our governments – and the silence of the people in both nations as a whole – looks like a blot on us as nations.

And, as the Bible says (Proverbs 14:34), “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

Why you shouldn’t trust the BBC

Many people in the UK get most of their news from the BBC. It is their window on the world, and therefore has a big impact on how they view the world. It is usually seen as more objective and less biased than most British newspapers, and unlike them, has official government support through its charter.

However, BBC news reporting is often so slanted as to be misleading. Indeed, its treatment of some news stories verges on the dishonest.

Let me give three examples.

Russian Hacking

The BBC News website has a page entitled “Can US election hack be traced to Russia?” dated the 22nd December 2016. It doesn’t give a definitive answer. But even the title is misleading. The basic question is “Where did Wikileaks get the emails?” There are two possibilities. One is that the emails were leaked by an insider who had access to them. The other possibility is that they were hacked by an outsider, and then passed to Wikileaks. But the title of the article does not even admit the possibility that they were leaked by an insider.  It assumes a hack.

The really strange thing about the article, however, is not what it says, but what it leaves out. First, there is no mention of Julian Assange. Second, there is not even any mention of Wikileaks. It was not until the 4th of January 2017 that the BBC mentioned that “Mr Assange said Russia was not the source for the site’s mass leak of emails from the Democratic Party. ” Assange, however, had said this several weeks before, as was made clear in an article published in the Guardian on the 10th of December.

But it was not just Assange who said that Russia was not the source. In that Guardian article, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, said “I know who leaked them.  I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

And here is the interesting thing. While the Guardian and the Daily Mail both contacted Craig Murray, interviewed him, and published some of his comments, the BBC never contacted him, and never mentioned his comments. Why?

In short, the BBC didn’t actually say anything untrue. They simply omitted to mention a crucial fact. And that, it seems to me, is dishonest.

Bana Alabed

The BBC has, several times, run news stories about Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl tweeting out of besieged east Aleppo. The first on the 2nd October, 2016, was entitled: Meet the seven-year-old girl tweeting from Aleppo.  The most recent was on the 24th January 2017 (by which time she was living in Turkey).  In the initial report, the BBC says “As the Twitter account has gained followers, Fatemah [Bana’s mother] says people have accused her of running a “fake” account, or using her daughter for propaganda reasons. ” The BBC report does not say that these allegations are false, but it certainly implies it. And in the most recent report, no mention of these allegations is made.

However, it seems to me that Bana’s parents are almost certainly using the account for propaganda purposes.

In the first place, Bana’s tweets do make political points, and it is pretty obvious that any seven-year-old’s tweets on a political subject are going to reflect the point of view of whatever adult is supervising their tweeting. The political points made are subtle, and are appropriate for a seven-year-old, but the overall message has been “The Syrian Army and the Russians are killing the people of Eastern Aleppo”. The clear implication was that the Syrian Army and the Russians were the villains of the piece, and it would be good if someone intervened in some way against the Syrian Army and the Russians. The fact that the tweeting was in English made it clear that they were aimed at readers in the west.

Secondly, all the evidence suggests that all information coming out of Eastern Aleppo was controlled by the militants who ruled it at the time – and that these militants were pretty brutal. For example, Patrick Cockburn, a highly experienced and respected Middle East correspondent, recently wrote:

In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’…

All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter.”

Yes. Twitter.

The fact is that, at the very least, Bana Alabed’s tweets could not have been going out of Aleppo without the blessing of an extremely brutal group of Islamic militants. But I think we can go beyond that, and say that it is quite likely that these Islamic militants encouraged and facilitated her tweets.

However, you would never guess that from reading the BBC’s accounts.

Andrew Ashdown

Andrew Ashdown is an Anglican clergyman who has visited Syria several times. On one of those occasions, he was part of a group that included Baroness Cox of Christian Solidarity International, and Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester. He has discovered and reported that most ordinary Syrians support the Syrian government in its war against the rebels. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every source which is in contact with the Christian communities in Syria, and pretty well every independent journalist who has gone into Syria, says the same thing. This, however, is something that one would never guess from reading and listening to the mainstream media. They simply never say that.

Andrew Ashdown was interviewed by the BBC, about his travels in Syria. The experience was interesting. In his own words, they “gave me 2 minutes and told me I could not mention that refugees from East Aleppo were directly contradicting the mainstream narrative.They changed the subject when I tried to mention it!

That suggests that the BBC was determined to make sure that certain information didn’t get out.

What is interesting about this particular case is that Andrew Ashdown has been interviewed by RT (Russia Today), the Russian state broadcaster. While the BBC told him what he couldn’t say, I understand that RT placed no such restrictions on him. Similarly, western journalists who have worked for RT have made it clear that RT has not interfered in their journalistic freedom.

Deliberate misrepresentation?

It is clear that in all three cases, the BBC was not omitting crucial facts due to ignorance. But what is worth noticing is that in all three cases, the slant produced was in the same direction. The slant was against the Russian and Syrian governments. In other words, the bias was in exactly the same direction as that of British government policy.

Since the BBC is basically a state owned corporation, perhaps that isn’t surprising. But it seems to me that there is little reason to think that its news coverage is any more fair or objective than that of RT. Indeed, I suspect that in some subjects, RT coverage may turn out to have been more objective than that of the BBC. And if someone had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be saying that, I would have been surprised.