More than a dozen members of the Maswadah family, including nine children, lay sleeping in tents in the shadow of a cliff in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada. The nomadic family had been eking out a living raising sheep and doing farm work in the region most heavily targeted by the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led bombing campaign that began in 2015.
Unbeknown to the Maswadahs, Royal Saudi Air Force drones had been hovering for 45 minutes over their dwellings at the edge of the wide plain walled by mountains. Saudi duty officers more than 550 miles away watched the family’s tents on their screens, along with two “hot spots” likely created by the body heat of people and animals inside.
What happened next in the Saudi war room is described in a U.S. intelligence report seen by The Intercept. The minute-by-minute account of a single airstrike provides a small yet detailed window into the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, showing how officers in charge of daily air raids are ignoring their own procedures aimed at minimizing civilian casualties. Specialists in international humanitarian law say the incident described in the document shows “clear violations” of the laws of war.
The duty officers monitoring drone feeds in the Joint Forces Command National Defense Operations Center in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on the night of May 14 saw the Maswadahs’ tents, but observed “no personnel or vehicles visible, nor any other intelligence information about the location,” according to the report.
The Saudi brigadier general in charge on May 14 wasn’t present in the operations center, so the duty officers called him twice to describe the target.
At 9:25 p.m., the absent general issued the order to strike the tents. The RSAF, which was monitoring the site separately, added its own recommendation to strike. “At 2156, an unknown coalition aircraft released a single GBU-12 on the target,” notes the document, referring to a 500-pound, American-made precision-guided bomb that was dropped at 9:56 p.m., less than 50 minutes after the Saudis first caught sight of the tents.
It is not clear whether the aircraft that fired the munition belonged to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which lead the coalition fighting in Yemen, or to a partner nation such as Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, or Sudan. Morocco reportedly withdrew its fighter jets in April.
Abdullah Maswadah, 40, a farmer and father of the nine sleeping children inside the tents that night, told The Intercept that he was awake and outside the square fabric shelters trying to avoid mosquitos when the bomb dropped. Fortunately for his family, the missile failed to hit its intended target. The American-made munition missed the family’s tents, which had been donated by the Red Crescent, “by about 30 meters,” according to the intelligence report. Maswadah estimated that it landed 10 to 15 meters from where his children slept along with his wife, her parents, and her sister on sponge mattresses next to bags of clothes.
“I rushed to my tent and [the tent] had fallen on the kids,” Maswadah said. “Some woke in panic, screaming and crying, and some were still asleep.” He moved his relatives out into the open and wiped the dust from their faces. All had survived unharmed, likely because the sides of the tents had been reinforced with stone walls.
As preparations for a second strike unfolded in the Saudi operations center, “multiple personnel, to include at least 1 female and 4 children, exited the tent and fled towards a road,” according to the document. The second strike was then aborted.
The coalition and U.S. Central Command did not respond to questions from The Intercept. But the intelligence report includes what appear to be comments from an American intelligence analyst attempting to summarize key takeaways from the misguided strike.
The attack was “an indication of failure to follow proper procedure even though safeguards are in place,” the analyst wrote, without stating what those safeguards were. “The Saudis failed to corroborate the target with additional intelligence sources or weigh the lack of time-sensitivity with the decision to strike immediately.”
Yet, in an apparent attempt to throw a positive light on the near-fatal fiasco, the analyst pointed out “the obvious desire to avoid civilian casualties and do the right thing indicated by the very real distress that was felt [by the Saudis] after they realized civilians were present.” About 15 minutes after the attack, a senior Saudi officer “expressed extreme displeasure that the strike had been ordered due to the lack of intelligence information justifying it,” the report notes. Many Saudi officers “were visibly distressed at the near-miss of a civilian casualty event. They also privately admitted failing to follow their own procedures, which were put in place to prevent incidents like this from occurring.”
THE SAUDI OFFICERS’ FAILURE to take any precautions to avoid civilian injury or death was a clear breach of customary international humanitarian law, as was the failure to verify the target, experts said. “Beyond viewing the tents and the hot spots, if no intelligence was ordered to determine if these were military targets, then this is definitely a violation of the principle of precaution. This is the obligation to take all necessary measures to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to minimise incidental loss of civilian life,” said Ioannis Kalpouzos, an expert on the laws of war at City Law School, University of London.
Though the U.S. is not known to have used its own fighter pilots and attack aircraft in Yemen, it is more directly involved in the coalition’s air war than it has been in any other foreign-led bombing campaign in modern history. As the intelligence report shows, the U.S. maintains a significant presence in the Saudi operations center. It also sells munitions and aircraft to the coalition and provides maintenance, training, targeting assistance, and mid-air refueling for fighter jets carrying out bombing runs.
Potential U.S. complicity in violations of the laws of war described in the report is more relevant than ever. The U.S. reportedly increased its role in selecting targets for coalition airstrikes soon after the May 14 attack.
In mid-June, the coalition launched a major military offensive against Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, which, along with the surrounding area, was home to 400,000 people. That assault has relied heavily on airstrikes from coalition fighter jets flown by American-trained pilots, armed with American-made missiles, and refueled in the air by U.S. planes. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the expanded U.S. role in target selection is meant to “minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure” in the Hodeidah operation, which the United Nations humanitarian chief in Yemen has said could put 250,000 lives at risk. Some 47,230 households have so far been displaced from the governorate as a result of the fighting.