Yemen: Images of missile and cluster munitions point to US role in fatal attack

Amnesty International has today released images of  a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions, apparently taken following an attack on an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in Yemen that killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children.

The 17 December 2009 attack on the community of al-Ma’jalah in the Abyan area in the south of Yemen killed 55 people including 14 alleged members of al-Qa’ida.

“A military strike of this kind against alleged militants without an attempt to detain them is at the very least unlawful. The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions,” said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

The Yemeni government has said its forces alone carried out the attack on al-Ma’jalah, the site of an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in al-Mahfad district, Abyan Governorate.

Shortly after the attack some US media reported alleged statements by unnamed US government sources who said that US cruise missiles launched on presidential orders had been fired at two alleged al-Qa’ida sites in Yemen.

“Based on the evidence provided by these photographs, the US government must disclose what role it played in the al-Ma’jalah attack, and all governments involved must show what steps they took to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries,” said Philip Luther.

The photographs enable the positive identification of damaged missile parts, which appear to be from the payload, mid-body, aft-body and propulsion sections of a BGM-109D Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile.

This type of missile, launched from a warship or submarine, is designed to carry a payload of 166 cluster submunitions (bomblets) which each explode into over 200 sharp steel fragments that can cause injuries up to 150m away. An incendiary material inside the bomblet also spreads fragments of burning zirconium designed to set fire to nearby flammable objects.

A further photograph, apparently taken within half an hour of the others, shows an unexploded BLU 97 A/B submunition itself, the type carried by BGM-109D missiles. These missiles are known to be held only by US forces and Yemeni armed forces are unlikely to be capable of using such a missile.

Amnesty International has requested information from the Pentagon about the involvement of US forces in the al-Ma’jalah attack, and what precautions may have been taken to minimize deaths and injuries, but has yet to receive a response.

“Amnesty International is gravely concerned by evidence that cluster munitions appear to have been used in Yemen, when most states around the world have committed to comprehensively ban these weapons,” said Mike Lewis, Amnesty International’s arms control researcher.

“Cluster munitions have indiscriminate effects and unexploded bomblets threaten lives and livelihoods for years afterwards. All governments responsible for using them must urgently provide assistance to clear unexploded munitions.”

Neither the USA nor Yemen has yet signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty designed to comprehensively ban such weapons which is due to enter into force on 1 August 2010.

A Yemeni parliamentary committee that investigated the 17 December 2009 attack reported in February that 41 people it described as civilians had been killed. In its report the committee said that on arrival at the scene of the attack in al-Ma’jalah it “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture.”

It said the committee “found traces of blood of the victims and a number of holes in the ground left by the bombing… as well as a number of unexploded bombs”, and that one survivor told the committee that his family, who were killed although they had committed no crime, were sleeping when the missiles struck on the morning of 17 December 2009.  

In its report, the Yemeni parliamentary committee said the Yemeni government should open a judicial investigation into the attack and bring to justice those responsible for the killings of civilians, but no such investigation is known to have been held as yet.

The committee reported statements by the Abyan Governorate authorities that 14 alleged members of al-Qa’ida were also killed in the attack, but said it had been unable to obtain information confirming this and was able to obtain the name of only one of the 14 from the Abyan authorities.


An Amnesty International delegation obtained the photographs from a confidential source during a visit to Yemen in March 2010. Amnesty International has delayed their release in order to check their contents with independent specialists, and to provide the US government with time to respond to the evidence. Due to security restrictions, Amnesty International teams have not yet been able to visit the site to verify the images. However, evidence in the photographs supports their provenance. The munition parts in the photograph match munition parts shown in footage from al-Ma’jalah broadcast by Al-Jazeera on 19 December 2009. Figures and vehicles in other photographs also confirm their location. The photographs’ internal time-stamps appear to show that all were taken with the same camera within 50 minutes of each other, suggesting that they were all taken in the same area. Several US media organizations reported that they had received unattributed statements from White House officials about authorization for the use of US-fired cruise missiles on two targets in Yemen on 17 December 2009: (“Cruise missiles strike Yemen”, ABC News, 19 December 2009.) “U.S. launched missile strikes on Al-Qaeda in Yemen, sources say”, FOX News, 18 December 2009. The submunition visible in the fifth photograph is marked with its designation (BOMB FRAG BLU 97 A/B) and a lot number (ATB92J109-003) indicating that it was manufactured at the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant, USA, in September 1992. Unexploded bomblets frequently explode when disturbed by civilians, causing injuries and deaths. BLU-97 bomblets are particularly dangerous in this regard: they contain an “all-ways acting” secondary fuse which is extremely sensitive to movement, threatening civilians who disturb them and making them difficult for humanitarian ordnance clearance personnel to remove. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, signed by 106 states and ratified by 35 states, enters into force on 1 August 2010. It comprehensively bans the manufacture, transfer and use of cluster munitions; and requires states parties to declare and destroy stockpiled cluster munitions, to clear cluster munition-contaminated areas, and to provide assistance to affected communities and cluster munition survivors. Neither the USA nor Yemen has signed the treaty. Nonetheless Amnesty International regards the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas to be indiscriminate and contrary to international humanitarian law, and supports a complete ban on their manufacture, transfer and use.