Were US missile and cluster munitions used in a fatal attack in Yemen?

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.

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.

Yemen munitions

Unexploded BLU 97 cluster bomblet - the Tomahawk BGM-109D cruise missile would have carried 166 of these.

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.

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. But 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, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

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.

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.

Alireza Azizi contributed to this post.



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