A Yemeni who survived an assassination operation ordered by the United Arab Emirates and led by American mercenaries has spoken out about his campaign on the U.S. government to hold those responsible to account.
Abdullah Suliman Abdullah Daubalah, a former journalist, was caught up in the 2015 attempted assassination of Yemeni politician Ansaf Ali Mayo in the southern city of Aden, which was then under the control of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council.
American mercenaries working for the Spear Operations Group carried out the mission, in which no one was killed. A 2018 Buzzfeed report detailed how the UAE contracted the Americans in their campaign against "terrorist" targets in Yemen, many of whom were linked to the Islamist Al-Islah political party—a Yemeni affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that is banned in the UAE.
Daubalah—now living in Turkey having fled Yemen via Jordan—is one of two Yemenis calling on American, British and Turkish authorities to arrest the Americans and Emiratis accused of involvement in the covert campaign as well as other war crimes committed in Yemen.
Last week, Daubalah and his lawyers at the London-based Stoke White firm submitted all collected evidence to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Turkish Ministry of Justice and Britain's Metropolitan Police.
They have not yet released the names of those they accuse of wrongdoing, nor the nature of their evidence. Stoke White said Daubalah and the other complainant—Salah Muslem Salem, whose brother was killed in Yemen in 2019—are self-funding their case with no third-party support.
Both the DOJ and the UAE embassy in London declined to comment on the accusations. The UAE embassy in Washington did not reply to Newsweek's phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Mayo was Islah's top politician in Aden, and his name thus made its way onto the UAE kill list. The Americans targeted Islah's headquarters, hoping to attach a shrapnel bomb to the building's front door that would kill Mayo when detonated.
But the raid was botched. Mayo had left the building around 10 minutes before the Americans arrived, and drone footage obtained by BuzzFeed shows how the operation descended into confusion after one of the mercenaries opened fire at an unknown target further down the street while his comrade attempted to plant the explosives.
Daubalah previously lived in the capital Sana'a, but after the Houthi rebels took the city they closed the news channel he worked for and began persecuting Islah members, he said. Daubalah fled to Aden, where Mayo offered him a job working for Islah's media team.
Daubalah told Newsweek he was one of around 20 people inside the headquarters on December 29, 2015, when the Americans—supported by UAE troops and French Foreign Legion soldiers—launched their attack.
After the first explosion—of the bomb intended to kill Mayo—Daubalah said he tried to reach the building's balcony to see what was happening. But after a second blast—the mercenaries booby-trapped their jeep to cause more damage and confusion—Daubalah and several other journalists took shelter on the roof of the building.
Amid the chaos, Daubalah said he heard someone outside shouting "go, go" in English. This confused him, he said, as he did not know of any Americans or even non-Arabs operating in Aden.
At least some of those behind the raid are believed to be residing in the U.S. Daubalah and his legal team argue they—and accused Emirati officials—can be arrested under Universal Jurisdiction. This allows nations to investigate or prosecute those accused of war crimes regardless of their nationality or where the incidents occurred.
The American mercenaries who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they targeted those classified as terrorists by the UAE government—a U.S. ally. Daubalah rejected this argument, noting that all those in the Islah headquarters on during the attack were politicians and civilians.
"The UAE is just using this terrorist stuff to justify their attacks on those politicians who speak out against them," he said. The UAE and its American contractors were "trying to empty Aden of the politicians who were speaking out against the UAE," he argued.
Daubalah acknowledged it is unlikely that U.S. authorities will detain any of the accused Americans. Instead, his complaint is about trying to curb UAE assassination campaigns and make nations "think twice" before drafting in mercenaries. He also noted that 20 people could have been killed, and that "lives are precious and they cannot be overlooked."
It seems unlikely that President Donald Trump—who has lionized regular American soldiers convicted of war crimes—would allow American citizens to be arrested or charged with war crimes, particularly in such a murky case with unclear evidence.
Daubalah said he hopes the Department of Justice retains its independence and is able to investigate the allegations without presidential interference. Though he "doesn't have any faith in the government," Daubalah said he still "trusts the independent nature of the American justice system."
American voters can also bring pressure to bear, he said, forcing lawmakers to "move towards making the government have a better system where those mercenaries cannot operate this easily in the Middle East or anywhere else."
The U.S. and other Western nations have provided logistical support to UAE and Saudi Arabian forces in their Yemen intervention. This includes American bombs used in several alleged war crimes.
But Daubalah stressed that he and many other Yemenis do not conflate the American people with an administration that is widely unpopular across the Middle East. "They're able to differentiate between the people and the system," he said of his compatriots.
"They do blame the American system, the American government, for a lot of the chaos that's happening within Yemen, but they are intelligent enough to make the distinction."