SANAA On January 23, science teacher Ali Nasser al-Qawli had finished supervising school exams in the Yemeni village of Khawlan and was enjoying an afternoon with friends when he encountered the strangers.
They wanted a lift in a taxi Qawli and his nephew were in. A while later, locals say, an American aircraft fired missiles at the vehicle.
"All of us in the village heard a large explosion," said Qawli's brother, Mohamed, who rushed to the scene. "We picked up the burned body parts. They were all over. We picked them up and put them in plastic bags, and took them to the hospital so we could bury them the next day," he said. "My brother was completely charred. We identified him by his teeth. It's as if they killed animals."
A copy of the Khalid bin al-Walid school attendance register shows Qawli's signature for the first four days of that week. Under Thursday it says: "Martyred on January 23, 2013."
At the time local sources told Reuters the strike killed at least six suspected al Qaeda militants.
The Yemeni government now says Qawli, who had three children, and his nephew were not militants but innocent civilians. In a statement, it concluded: "We can confirm the following: Ali al-Qawli ... did not know or communicate with the individuals who rented the mentioned car and their death was a matter of fate."
It was just one instance in which Yemeni civilians have perished in U.S. drone strikes, which are Washington's favored method of combating al Qaeda in Yemen.
On Thursday, 15 people on their way to a wedding were killed when an air strike missed its intended target of suspected militants, Yemeni officials said. It was not clear whether a drone or a Yemeni aircraft was responsible for the attack.
The United States says its drone program has been successful in eliminating members of al Qaeda in various countries. Some Yemenis say had it not been for such strikes, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could have seized more territory across Yemen.
Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told Reuters in September that the drone strikes were a "necessary evil" and a "very limited affair" that happens in coordination with the Yemeni government.
Other Yemenis, and some U.S. politicians, say the strikes and civilian casualties are increasing sympathy for AQAP and resentment against America. AQAP, which has scattered across the country, is now targeting local police and security officials, who have only tenuous control in Yemen.
There are near daily suicide attacks on Yemeni police and security forces, which Yemeni officials blame on suspected AQAP militants. On December 5 more than 50 people died when an estimated 12 militants attacked the Yemeni defense ministry compound in Sanaa.
The threat is more than local: Yemen borders oil producer Saudi Arabia and is next to major shipping routes.
Mohamed, brother of the dead Qawli, told Reuters: "These (drone) strikes create more terrorism. In our area there was never anyone linked to al Qaeda. After the strike, everyone in the area started listening to al Qaeda types, exchanging videos on mobile phones."
He said that many houses in his area now fly a black flag carrying an Islamic expression of faith - a symbol al Qaeda often uses.
U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat representative in Florida, told Reuters that according to one U.S. official who served in Yemen, "every drone death yields 50 to 60 new recruits for Al Qaeda." Grayson, who recently participated in a Congressional briefing that included relatives of victims of drone strikes, described the drone policy as "ineffective."
The Yemeni government, struggling to assert control over vast swathes of territory where rebels and secessionists sometimes hold sway, tolerates the attacks and does not usually comment on the U.S. role in specific incidents. But Rajeh Badi, the media advisor to Yemen's prime minister, told Reuters: "The strikes have caused, in some instances, the joining of some individuals with AQAP with the motive of revenge, especially when the strikes target innocents."
Asked about the drone program and civilian casualties, a U.S. State Department official referred to President Barack Obama's comments in May in which Obama said that before any strike is made "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."
The official added: "Yemen and the United States are robust partners in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We support the efforts of the Yemeni government and its security forces in combating AQAP."
SPREAD OF AQAP
Formed in 2009, AQAP has a reputation as one of al Qaeda's most formidable regional wings, conducting suicide attacks on tourists and diplomats, and operations against neighboring Saudi Arabia and U.S. targets abroad.
In 2011 al Qaeda militants charged into the south Yemen towns of Zinjibar, Jaar and Shuqra in Abyan province and set up Islamic "emirates" when the country was in the midst of an uprising that eventually ousted veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh. To broaden their appeal, the militants renamed themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), appointed spokesmen to deal with the media and put up signposts and flags.
Abyan's governor, Jamal al-Aqel, faced a big challenge to drive out the militants, who enjoyed some local support, when he took up his post in April 2012. "We were running the province and running the fighting from nine square kilometers," Aqel, who wears a small pistol on his belt, told Reuters. "Al Qaeda does not move except within the confines of an environment that helps it to move. I consider that the environment that used to help is now missing."
Yemeni security forces managed to drive the militants out in June 2012 after more than a year of political turmoil that had taken Yemen to the brink of civil war.
U.S. officials credit the drone strategy for the fact that AQAP is no longer able to control territory in Yemen as it did in 2011. Drone attacks killed several suspected AQAP figures, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamist militant who orchestrated plots to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and U.S. cargo planes in 2010. Awlaki was killed in September 2011.
Despite the toll taken on militants, residents in various parts of Yemen told Reuters they worry that the drone program is counter-productive. In the capital Sanaa, Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a journalist who has interviewed several members of AQAP, acknowledged the group has taken some hits from the drones, but said the strikes have also brought it followers.
"The drones have limited their movements but it makes their ideology more attractive to people. When a Yemeni is killed, it doesn't matter whether or not he's al Qaeda," said Jamal, who was wearing the dagger common among Yemeni men.
He said some Salafists - followers of a strict form of Sunni Islam - are angry the strikes are hitting Sunnis, who form the majority in Yemen, rather than Shi'ite Houthi rebels, who have been fighting the government for years.
"Going after al Qaeda has made a lot of Salafists closer to them. Why don't those drones go after armed Shi'ites who call for ‘Death to America, Death to Israel'," said Jamal, referring to the refrain many hardline Shi'ites use in Yemen and elsewhere.
"Hundreds of families are seeking revenge from the U.S. so they deal with that by joining al Qaeda."
In Jaar, a decrepit village in Abyan province where the smell of fresh fish at the outdoor market hangs in the air, sympathy for the militants was still evident.
Jaar has seen several attacks, though it is unclear whether by U.S. drones or by the Yemeni airforce. Burned shells of cars destroyed in a strike two years ago still sit near mounds of rubble where one-storey brick homes once stood.
Villagers' accounts differ on whether some of the victims were members of al Qaeda, but all those Reuters spoke to said some of the victims had been civilians.
Just off a poorly paved road where motorbikes and donkey carts vied for space, Hozam, a butcher who stood outside his home, described a strike that destroyed the house near him where six men had moved in.
"I grabbed the children and took them away as we breathed in gunpowder and smoke. I saw people bring out severed heads and torn body parts," he said of the strike which took place in mid-2012.
His wife, Umm Abdallah, said that when militants had controlled the area, people had had more access to electricity and water. Yemeni officials say such views are misguided and exaggerated.
Tribal leaders, who have a lot of influence within Yemen's complex social structure, warn of rising sympathy for al Qaeda. Awad Ahmed Mohsen from Majallah, a southern village hit by a drone strike that killed dozens in 2009, told Reuters that America had brought hatred with its drones.
Asked if more people joined al Qaeda in the wake of attacks that killed civilians, Mohsen said: "Definitely. And even those who don't join, now sympathize with al Qaeda because of these strikes, these violations. Any American they see, they exact revenge, even if it's a civilian."
NO SILVER BULLET
The strikes have forced the militants to travel in smaller numbers to avoid detection; but in some ways that makes it harder for Yemen's security forces to target them.
"What you've got now is a more dispersed AQAP that focuses on guerrilla tactics and asymmetrical attacks against Yemeni forces," said Barbara Leaf, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Arabian Peninsula, at a Congressional sub-committee hearing in November. "I wish there were a silver bullet approach to this. There isn't, we know it, the Yemenis know it."
At the same hearing Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican representative in Florida, said: "Al Qaeda has not been decimated, it is not on the run, it is resurgent throughout the region and Yemen is no different."
Several drone strikes were launched against suspected militants in August after authorities detected a plot against U.S. embassies, but the pace has slowed since then.
Leaf said that continued U.S. support for Yemen's security was "critical" and acknowledged that while the Yemeni government had the will to counter AQAP, "it does not have the capacity at this time to extend security throughout all parts of this country."
Facing a backlash from international rights groups, and an American public wary of getting involved in more regional conflicts, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee approved a plan to provide greater oversight of drone strikes, including an annual public accounting of casualties. But in late November, the House of Representatives voted against such a move.
Others believe the only long-term answer to militants in the region is diplomacy. Hamoud Hitar, a former religious endowments minister in Yemen who headed a rehabilitation program for jailed militants in the early 2000s, said the way to deal with militants was through changing their ideology.
Dressed in a crisp white thawb and trim turban at his home in Sanaa, Hitar said: "Using force only reinforces the ideology of force. We have to work on (changing) the ideological roots, otherwise terrorism will continue."
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)