SANAA, Yemen -- The cleric preached in his Yemeni village about the evils of al-Qaida, warning residents to stay away from the group's fighters and their hard-line ideology. The talk worried residents, who feared that it would bring retaliation from the militants, and even the cleric's father wanted him to stop.
But in the end, it wasn't al-Qaida that killed Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber.
Al-Qaida fighters, who hide in mountain strongholds near the remote eastern village of Khashamir, did call him out, demanding that he meet them one night -- apparently to intimidate him into stopping his sermons against them. Sheik Salem felt that he had no choice but to meet them, but a cousin who was in the police insisted on accompanying him as protection, according to the cleric's brother-in-law, Faysal bin Ali bin Jaber, who recounted the events in an interview.
"Once they arrived to the car where al-Qaida was, four missiles hit," Mr. Faysal said. At home in the village, he heard the blasts -- and heard the U.S. drone that struck the cars. "We know the buzzing sound of the drones overhead," he said.
Yemeni security officials confirmed that three militants, along with Sheik Salem and his cousin, were killed in the strike last August, and that it was carried out by a U.S. drone.
In its covert fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, the United States has dramatically stepped up its use of drone strikes the past year, scoring key successes against one of the most active branches of the terror network. With more than 40 strikes reported in 2012 and nine so far this year, Yemen has become the second biggest front in U.S. drone warfare, after Pakistan. But the escalation has meant more civilians getting caught in the crossfire.
Civilian deaths are breeding resentments on a local level, sometimes undermining U.S. efforts to turn the public against militants. The backlash is still not as large as in Pakistan, where there is heavy pressure on the government to force limits on strikes, but public calls for a halt to strikes are starting to emerge.
Several dozen activists protested Monday near the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, denouncing the strikes. "The drone program is terrorizing our people," the activists wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama. "One never knows where the next drone will strike, nor how many innocent victims will die."
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the drone program in Washington last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni whose village had been struck only days earlier, told the senators that drones are "harming efforts to win hearts and minds," saying drones are now "the face of America" to many Yemenis.
Faysal bin Jaber said the strike had deepened the fear in Khashamir. Sheik Salem had spoken in his sermon "about how killing people and labeling people who work with the West as infidels is wrong," he said. But after the strike, "everyone who saw that there is no differentiating between us and al-Qaida are asking why don't we just join al-Qaida, since it makes no difference?" he said.
The cleric's widow -- Mr. Faysal's sister --now relies on relatives and neighbors to support herself and her seven children.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not confirm individual strikes or release information on how many have been carried out. Three prominent groups have been compiling data on strikes, mainly from news reports based on reports by Yemeni security officials: the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the U.S.-based Long War Journal and the New America Foundation.
Their estimates on the number of U.S. airstrikes vary -- from 44 to 67 since 2002, the majority by drones.world