US’ Black Hawk Down in Yemen

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A United States Black Hawk helicopter crashed off the southern Yemeni coast in late August leaving six US army officers stranded in Yemen. Five elite soldiers were rescued after the crash and a sixth officer was reported “missing” in war-torn Yemen.

This crash did not resemble the US’ Black Hawk Down incident of 1993 in Somalia – nothing like it. It has all the hallmarks of a US creeping mission to Yemen.

The elite soldiers on board the aircraft were “supporting Operation Inherent Resolve”, according to a US Department of Defence (DoD) press release on 30 August. It has since been taken down, although the following screen grab shows the original press release marked for immediate release:

A subsequent press release sent to MEMO by the Pentagon via email dated 31 August read: “The Department of Defense announced today the identity of a soldier listed as Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown (DUSTWUN). The announcement resulted from an Aug. 25 training incident off the coast of Yemen, where the soldier was supporting US Central Command operations.”

According to a press release published on its website, the ministry said: “Staff Sgt. Emil Rivera-Lopez was declared deceased on Aug. 31 as a result of the training incident on Aug. 25. The incident remains under investigation.”

To be clear Operation Inherent Resolve is a mission dedicated to the elimination of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, with a clear geographical boundary. But why was an Operation Inherent Resolve aircraft functional in Yemen? MEMO asked US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Public Affairs Desk replied: “The Coalition does not conduct operations in Yemen.”

It still remains unclear, as investigations continue, as to why the US would deem it safe to conduct a “training” exercise in a country that is already undergoing intense civil war. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, to assist Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and push back armed groups emanating from north of the country.

The UAE is the only coalition member to have included counterterrorism military objectives against Daesh in Yemen and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Whether the US was conducting an operation alongside the United Arab Emirates against AQAP or Daesh would not be known until findings are released. But one thing is clear, this incident has the hallmarks of a mission creep to Yemen.

Mission creep?

It may be the case that the US is now creeping Operation Inherent Resolve in to Yemen. The US aircraft could have been thwarted or dislodged by one of the adversaries. As the fight against Daesh is spilling over new landscapes such as Yemen and the Philippines, the US is increasingly being challenged on the legal authorisation to chase Daesh on new fronts.

America does not have adequate legal cover to chase those military operations. The current Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) law covers groups connected to 9/11. It has been used to chase Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces in a global war on terror – wherever Al-Qaeda is found. This legal authorisation has become stale and outdated as new and emerging threats have arisen in the past few years in Syria and Iraq; the law does not cover groups such as Daesh.

In March, US President Donald Trump introduced a new policy shift which allows the US military to execute use of lethal force in designated areas known as “temporary battlefields” for up to six-months. The policy shift has enabled a greater number of raids, drone strikes and special operations in Yemen without US congressional approval.

Along with this shift in March, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now pushing to expand powers to conduct covert drone strikes in Afghanistan and other theatres – a policy a Trump White House is in favour of, bar the Pentagon’s concerns.

The previous Obama administration limited the use of counterterrorism raids and drone strikes, but Trump appears to be trigger happy.

This proposal is being lobbied to the White House as the expansionism of this policy holds fears of grave international human rights law abuses across the globe. Without any transparency or accountability for drone strikes, raids or other counterterrorism operations, it is a concerning development.

The use of raids and other weapons systems – including drones – has lowered the threshold of war, making it easier to violate another state’s territorial sovereignty. In addition, there is very little legality about what is going on, in particular a domestic authorisation or transparency over the specific and imminent threat posed.

If the CIA’s proposal to broaden covert action is accepted, and the fight against Daesh is expanded into Yemen, it will mean dismantling restrictions on the use of force as understood by the international community. At a time when raids and drones have become the weapon of choice, it’s important for states to abide by historical principles and recognise international frameworks to avert the risk of denying the fundamental human right to life.

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