In Yemen, a race to save a boy from al-Qaida and a US drone
ATAQ, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida was giving away motorcycles up in the mountains — that’s what the kids in town were saying the day Abdullah disappeared.
Early that morning, Mohsanaa Salem woke her 14-year-old son to go buy vegetables. The sun had just risen above the mountain ridge, and winter light filled the ravine where their mud brick house sat at the foot of a slope. “Let me sleep,” Abdullah groaned from a mattress on the floor, surrounded by his brothers and sisters.
One word from his father, though, and the boy was up and dressed, trudging out of the house to the market in a neighboring village. Three hours later, when he still hadn’t returned, Mohsanaa and her husband began to worry.
They were a family trying to get by in Yemen, a nation at war with itself that has become a battleground for more powerful countries.
They knew that many families like theirs had been caught in the middle, with thousands killed in fighting between Iranian-backed rebels from the north, known as Houthis, and forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the ousted government.
They knew that al-Qaida militants were based in the mountains, sending fighters out to battle the Houthis, while trying to elude missiles fired from U.S. drones that often killed innocents.
And they knew Abdullah was a good boy, though a bit naive. He never strayed far — just to school or to play soccer with his friends in a lot so close his mother could see it from the house. At about 10 a.m., Mohsanaa and her husband called around to the couple dozen other families who lived in their village to ask if anybody had seen Abdullah.
No one had, and his parents’ worry grew to panic.
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
All around al-Said district, in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province, people heard the American drone overhead on the morning of Jan. 26.
That wasn’t unusual. The sky often buzzed with drones hunting for the moment to strike at the al-Qaida militants, a mix of locals, foreign fighters and Yemenis from other parts of the country who had moved into the district.
From above, the drone surveyed an inhospitable landscape of barren limestone mountains, creased with ravines and gorges. Zooming in on those threads of green, the drone would have scanned dozens of isolated villages like the one where Abdullah lived, each just a few houses above plots of land planted with wheat and animal fodder.
Abdullah’s village, Shaab Arshan, sits in a wadi just over 100 meters (yards) wide in places, the bare mountains rearing up steeply on either side. Ravines and gorges lead to slightly larger valleys that eventually open into desert, the fringes of the vast Empty Quarter that takes up much of the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Qaida fighters come down to the valleys to resupply and recruit in the markets. They pass out memory cards with their videos and lectures. They show up at weddings or funerals now and then, preaching to those in attendance. And they offer gifts to teens and young men, the most vulnerable and easily swayed to join their ranks.
For more than a decade, the United States has waged a drone war against al-Qaida in Yemen, trying to eliminate one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network. The Trump administration has dramatically ramped up drone strikes, carrying out more in two years than the Obama administration did over its entire eight years — 176, compared to 154. More than 300 people — militants and civilians — were killed in 2017 and 2018 by one estimate.
At least 30 civilians were killed in 2018, The Associated Press found, based on accounts from family members and witnesses. A few weeks before Abdullah’s disappearance, a drone’s missile slammed into a farm in a neighboring province, killing a 70-year-old man and a young relative who had just returned from mediating a land dispute.
But here in al-Said district, it had been months since the last strike.
Soon after he left the house, Abdullah ran into a schoolmate who told him al-Qaida militants were giving away motorcycles in the town of Mosaynaa. The friend had heard it from a neighbor who belonged to the group.
Abdullah had never thought of joining al-Qaida and he didn’t want to now. He was in the 8th grade and dreamed of becoming a doctor one day. But he knew how to drive, and he wanted a motorcycle.
The boys agreed they would go get the motor bikes and come right home.
They caught a ride to the market in Yashbom, where Abdullah used part of the money his mother had given him to pay for a taxi to Ataq, the provincial capital on the other side of the mountain.
Abdullah loved Ataq — the closest thing to a city the village boy had seen. His father took him and his siblings there to buy gifts at holiday times and new clothes before the start of school. He always pleaded with his parents to send him to school there as a reward if he made it to the top of his class.
It was there that his friend had been told to contact the militants who would take them where they needed to go. They had no idea how far away that would be.
Abdullah’s parents expanded their search to nearby villages and called relatives in Ataq. No one had seen their boy.
What if a driver had hit Abdullah and sped away? He could be lying by the side of the road, or maybe someone found him and took him to a hospital.
Abdullah was their miracle child. Mohsanaa had complications in the pregnancy and gave birth to twins after only seven months. Abdullah’s brother died within days, and doctors were sure Abdullah would die, too. He was tiny, hairless, and there were no incubators at the hospital.
“If you saw him, you’d think he was a doll, just the size of the palm of your hand,” Mohsanaa said.
When Mohsanaa brought Abdullah home, she wouldn’t let anyone near him. She fed him formula. She kept him warm by spreading butter over his body and wrapping him in cotton. Every day, he got better, and by six months “he became a normal baby,” she said.
In an impoverished country where nearly four years of civil war have pushed millions to the brink of starvation, the family had much to be thankful for. Abdullah’s father, Saleh bin Elwiya, worked as a taxi driver and made enough to feed his wife, four sons and four daughters.
Saleh was a careful driver, plying the roads all day as far as Aden, southern Yemen’s biggest city, on the coast. He adored his children and had taught all his sons to drive, except for the youngest, Abdel-Salam, who at 8 couldn’t reach the pedals yet.
He always urged Abdullah to focus on his schoolwork.
“You just study, and I will take care of everything else,” Saleh told him. “I don’t want you to end up a taxi driver like I did because I didn’t finish school.”
Now his boy had vanished.
Saleh’s eldest son, Zayad, and a brother-in-law, Nabil, drove out to search the roads. The two were in the army together, on a week’s leave from a front-line unit fighting the Houthi rebels. At every army checkpoint along the way, they described Abdullah to the soldiers, asking if they’d seen him: A tall, lanky boy, baby face, not a trace of whiskers?
Finally, a soldier outside Ataq said yes. He’d seen him passing in a car. It was welcome news: At least they knew Abdullah had made it this far.
Saleh headed for Ataq in his taxi. There, he joined his relatives, searching in the markets and at taxi stands, going street by street, alley by alley through the city. He spoke little, growing more tense with every futile turn.
As night fell, they gathered at the home of Saleh’s brother in the Russian Compound, a housing complex on the city’s edge, built in the 1980s when Soviet experts were here searching for oil. Zayad called his mother. Still nothing, he told her.
Mohsanaa told him to stay there and wait until morning to resume the search. She didn’t want them driving around in the dark.
“Things happen at night,” she said.
On the outskirts of Ataq, Abdullah and his friend met a militant, who drove them in a Land Cruiser along a desert highway to Mosaynaa, through an area where Abdullah had never been before. He realized he had been gone for a long time and hadn’t told his parents where he was. He thought about turning back but didn’t have the nerve to say anything.
They passed through Mosaynaa, and the car wove up into the mountains to the al-Qaida fighters’ camp. In a tent, they all had a meal of chicken and rice and Pepsi, but there were no motorcycles. It was too late to leave, so they would have to stay the night. The militants gave the boys a phone to send a message to their parents, and Abdullah texted his father: “I am with al-Qaida. I’ll come back tomorrow. Don’t come for me.”
The boys were offered a tent, but decided to sleep in a nearby crevasse, under some trees. They were worried about airstrikes.
When he received the message in Ataq, Abdullah’s father tried calling back to the militant’s phone. It was turned off. They had to move right away, Saleh told his relatives, or else “I won’t be able to get him back.” Once in al-Qaida’s hands, Abdullah would be gone forever, sent to fight the Houthis or strapped with a suicide belt — or he might be hit by a drone.
With al-Qaida, “all roads lead to death,” said one of Saleh’s nephews.
Despite his wife’s warnings, Saleh got back into the taxi and drove into the night, joined by Zayad and Nabil, along with two of Saleh’s nephews who offered to help.
The search party asked around the shops and eateries still open in the markets. They learned that the boys had been there hours earlier, heading for the mountains.
Saleh had never been to Mosaynaa and didn’t have the tribal links needed to find his son. He needed local help, so he went to one of the few families he knew, the al-Tolsi family.
The al-Tolsi brothers were beekeepers, a common trade in Yemen, a country known for its honey. One of the brothers had links to al-Qaida, but he wasn’t there when Saleh and his relatives appeared at the door of the family house. Instead, it was another brother, named Mubarak.
Mubarak was not connected to al-Qaida and had status in the community, working as the imam at the local mosque and performing the daily call to prayer. He welcomed the men in and offered them dinner. Over the meal, his guests explained why they had come. Mubarak said he was happy to take them to the mountains in the morning. It was too dark now. But Saleh was insistent.
Mubarak gave in. The beekeeper and his nephew, Naguib, a geology student at a local oil university, joined them, setting out at 10 p.m. At the foot of the mountains, they sought out a local man known to be a look-out for al-Qaida. He belonged to the same tribe as Mubarak, so they knew they could ask him to take a message to the militants: There is a man here who wants his son back.
As the look-out went up the mountain, the seven of them waited below in Saleh’s taxi.
At around 11:30 p.m., an operator pressed a button in a U.S. military base — perhaps in neighboring Saudi Arabia, perhaps as far away as Nevada or Georgia — launching two Hellfire missiles from a drone cruising above the mountain. Abdullah heard explosions in the valley and, terrified, started to cry.
The hours passed slowly to daybreak, when Abdullah and his friend made their way down the mountain. Part way down, they saw a mangled car below. At the bottom, Abdullah recognized the license plate: His father’s taxi.
The missiles had reduced the car to burned wreckage. Abdullah’s father and brother and the other five people inside were torn to pieces.
There were no bodies. Overnight, militants had rushed to the site and taken the remains to Mosaynaa, but their blood was everywhere.
“It was shocking. I wept,” Abdullah said. “I realized he had come looking for me.”
News of the deaths in a drone strike fanned out across the district, passed by WhatsApp messages and phone calls.
One of Mubarak’s brothers, Ahmed al-Tolsi, was away in the neighboring province of Marib, taking their bees to flowers there. He got a message and rushed home to Mosaynaa to bury his kin.
“He is a generous man who received this family, gave them dinner and told them he would help them bring back their child,” he said of Mubarak. “He was doing something good and got killed.”
In Ataq, one of Saleh’s nephews heard a knock on the door at dawn. “Your brothers and uncle are in God’s embrace,” a neighbor said.
The remains of Saleh and his relatives were taken to the town of Yashbom, where Abdullah’s odyssey began, and laid out under sheets in the mosque. Saleh’s legs were gone; Zayad’s body was cut in half.
In keeping with Muslim custom, the five were buried right away in the Yashbom cemetery.
Abdullah’s mother woke at dawn for morning prayers, still worrying about Abdullah. At 7:30 a.m., neighbors arrived dressed in black for mourning and told her the news: Saleh and the others had been hit by the drone. They were all dead.
“It’s not possible. We talked in the evening,” Mohsanaa said. “I told them not to go out at night.”
She was terrified that Abdullah had been killed as well.
Then Abdullah appeared. He had walked four hours to get home and found the crowd of mourners gathered at his house. He sat alone under a tree nearby, trembling, afraid he would be blamed, until the men went over and reassured him. Mohsanaa had her son sit beside her and placed her hands on his head.
Tribal leaders sent emissaries to the al-Qaida fighters to demand they leave the area. But months later, Abdullah still blamed himself, not al-Qaida or the U.S.
“It was my all mistake,” Abdullah said. He speaks in short, muddled sentences, stooped over and looking down at his fingers.
“I was the reason why my father and brother, my uncle and cousins all died.”
The Pentagon confirmed that it carried out a strike in Shabwa province on Jan. 26, saying it was targeting al-Qaida. It does not release details or death tolls in drone strikes, spokeswoman Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich said.
Ever since, the families have tried to prove their slain loved ones were not militants. They gathered letters from everyone they could — police officers, district officials, tribal leaders, school principals — certifying that their relatives did not belong to al-Qaida. They spoke to human rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross, asking for an investigation.
They even held a demonstration in Ataq, attended by some 200 people, reading out a statement demanding the U.S. acknowledge that the victims were not al-Qaida and pay compensation to the families.
Their voices have not been heard. The U.S military has an official mechanism for families to request compensation for relatives mistakenly killed — a few families in Iraq and Pakistan have succeeded — but there is no U.S. Embassy in Yemen, so there is nowhere for Saleh’s family to submit evidence that they were civilians.
Abdullah’s family has shards of the missiles that killed the seven men. They keep the shrapnel printed with serial numbers wrapped in a blanket hoping one day to present it as evidence in an investigation.
Mohsanaa doesn’t believe she’ll ever see justice for the killing. With her husband gone, she scrapes by on a meager pension and tries to manage her family’s grief. She doesn’t speak of the killing in front of Abdullah. A pious woman, she knows he mustn’t blame himself.
“This is God’s verdict. If it wasn’t written, they wouldn’t have gone,” Mohsanaa said. “What’s the child’s guilt? He is a victim. He’s a poor boy.”
Associated Press writer Lee Keath in Cairo contributed.