A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, Yemen, which al-Qaida militants once controlled. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.
Chaos. Flames. Corpses. Then, a second missile struck.
Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also perished that day, and another man later died from his wounds.
The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaida militants and that its own Soviet-era jets carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But survivors, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that the victims were all civilians who lived in a village near Radda. U.S. officials last week acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike.
"Their bodies were burning," recalled Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, 27, who was riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. "How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaida."
More than three months later, the incident offers a window on the Yemeni government's efforts to conceal Washington's mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults. In this case, the deaths have bolstered the popularity of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror network's Yemen affiliate, which has tried to stage attacks on U.S. soil several times.
Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its claim that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaida leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who was thought to be in a car traveling on the same road.
U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine war against terrorism in this strategic Middle Eastern country.
In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.
Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP.
"Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans," Mohammed said. "If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaida because al-Qaida is fighting America."
Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.
"If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages," said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed Al-Sabooly, the truck's driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. "I would fight along al-Qaida's side against whoever was behind this attack."
After Osama bin Laden's death last year, Yemen emerged as a key battlefield in the Obama administration's war against Islamist militancy. AQAP members are among those on a clandestine "kill list" created by the administration to hunt down terrorism suspects. It is a lethal campaign, mostly fueled by unmanned drones, but it also includes fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles fired from the sea.
This year, there have been at least 38 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit website that tracks American drone attacks. That is significantly more than in any year since 2009, when President Barack Obama is thought to have ordered the first drone attack.
The Radda attack was one of the deadliest since a U.S. airstrike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians, including women and children, in the mountainous region of al-Majala in southern Yemen. After that attack, many tribesmen in that area became radicalized and joined AQAP.
"The people are against the indiscriminate use of the drones," said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubaker al-Qirbi. "They want better management of drones. And more important, they want to have some transparency as far as what's going on — from everybody."
The concern over civilian casualties has grown louder since the spring, when the White House broadened its definition of militants who can be targeted in Yemen to include those who may not be well-known.
"We don't attack in populated areas," said an Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing the U.S. airstrikes here. "We don't go after people in dwellings where we don't know who everyone is. We work very hard to minimize the collateral damage.
"Having said all that, like any programs managed and operated by human beings, mistakes happen. We are not perfect."
The rise in U.S. attacks came as AQAP and other extremists seized large swaths of southern Yemen last year, taking advantage of the political chaos of the country's populist Arab Spring revolution. Before that, AQAP orchestrated failed attempts to send parcel bombs on cargo planes to Chicago in 2010 and to bomb a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner the previous year.
In January, AQAP-linked militants briefly seized Radda, placing them only 100 miles south of the capital, Sanaa. But they left after the government, agreeing to their demands, released several extremists from prison. By the summer, the radicals had also been pushed from towns in southern Yemen after a U.S.-backed military offensive initiated by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took office early this year after the country's autocratic leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down after 33 years in power.
But today, al-Qaida-linked extremists are still in and around Radda, as well as in other parts of Yemen, staging attacks on government and military officials.
In recent months, villagers in Sabool, about 10 miles from Radda, said they have heard U.S. drones fly over the area as many as three or four times a day. Some described them as "little white planes."
"It burns my blood every time I see or hear the airplanes," said Ali Ali Ahmed Mukhbil, 40, a farmer. "All they have accomplished is destruction and fear among the people."
On that September morning, his brother Masood stepped into the Toyota truck in Sabool. It was filled with villagers heading to Radda to sell khat, a leafy narcotic chewed by most Yemeni males. After they sold their produce, they headed back in the afternoon.
Nasser Ahmed Abdurabu Rubaih, a 26-year-old khat farmer, was working in the valley when he heard the explosions. He ran to the site and, like others, threw sand into the burning vehicle to douse the flames. As he sifted through the charred bodies lying on the road, he recognized his brother, Abdullah, from his clothes.
"I lost my mind," Rubaih recalled.
Mukhbil's brother Masood was also dead.
Some witnesses said that they saw three planes in the sky, two black and one white, and that the black ones were Yemeni jets. But both missiles struck the moving vehicle directly, and the terrain surrounding the truck was not scorched — hallmarks of a precision strike from a sophisticated American aircraft.
"If you say it wasn't a U.S. drone, nobody will believe you," said Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, a former Yemeni prime minister and senior adviser to Hadi. "A Yemeni pilot to be able to hit a specific vehicle that's moving? Impossible."
The Yemeni government publicly apologized for the attack and sent 101 guns to tribal leaders in the area as a symbolic gesture, which in Yemeni culture is an admission of guilt. But a government inquiry into the strike appears to be stalled, human rights activists and lawmakers said.
For the past three months, lawmakers have unsuccessfully demanded that senior government officials reveal who was responsible for the attack.
Washington played a crucial role in ousting Saleh and installing Hadi, a former defense minister. The United States also provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the military and security forces in counterterrorism assistance. U.S. officials regard Hadi as an even stauncher counterterrorism ally than Saleh.
"The government is trying to kill the case," said Abdul Rahman Berman, the executive director of HOOD, a local human rights group. "The government wants to protect its relations with the U.S."
After the 2009 strike in al-Majala, the Yemeni government also took responsibility for the assault. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, according to a U.S. Embassy e-mail leaked by WikiLeaks.
Three weeks after the Radda attack, Hadi visited Washington and praised the accuracy of the U.S. drone strikes campaign in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, as well as publicly. "They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you're aiming at," he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The day after the attack, tribesmen affiliated with al-Qaida blocked the roads around Radda and stormed government buildings. They set up a large tent and held a gathering to denounce the government and the United States. Fliers handed out around town read: "See what the government has done? That's why we are fighting. . . . They are the agents of America and the enemy of Islam. . . . They fight whoever says 'Allah is my God,' according to America's instructions."
At the funeral, some mourners chanted "America is a killer," said Mohamed Al Ahmadi, a human rights activist who attended.
A few days later, at a gathering, relatives of the victims urged Yemeni officials to be careful about the intelligence they provided to the Americans. "Do not rush to kill innocent people," declared Mohammed Mukhbil Al Sabooly, a village elder, in testimony that was videotaped. "If such attacks continue, they will make us completely lose our trust in the existence of a state."
On extremist websites and Facebook pages, grisly pictures of the attack's aftermath, with bodies tossed like rag dolls on the road, have been posted, coupled with condemnations of the government and the United States. In Sabool and Radda, youths have vowed to join al-Qaida to fight the United States.
"The drone war is failing," Berman said. "If the Americans kill 10, al-Qaida will recruit 100."
AQAP sent emissaries to Sabool to offer compensation to the victims' relatives, seeking to fill the void left by the government, which has provided no compensation for the survivors and the families of those killed. Some relatives have already joined AQAP since the attack, said Hamoud Mohamed Al Ammari, the security chief of Radda.
Others are considering.
"If there's no compensation from the government, we will accept the compensation from al-Qaida," Rubaih said. "If I am sure the Americans are the ones who killed my brother, I will join al-Qaida and fight against America."
Greg Miller in Washington and Ali Almujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.