The British middle-classes are walking idly by, whilst from pretty Menwith Hill, the people of Yemen are being bombed.
At the innocent age of twelve, a school-friend invited me to her birthday party, to be held at the two-laned bowling alley in RAF Menwith Hill. A site referred to locally as ‘the golf balls’, Menwith Hill had always seemed to me an unproblematic feature of my home landscape; in fact, I was rather proud of it. As a young and impressionable teenager, it seemed amusing that I should be getting ten-pin strikes inside a giant golf ball that could be seen from space. I accepted the invitation and went along.
Growing up in the middle-class spa-town of Harrogate, recently voted to be the happiest town in the UK, I never thought to question my surroundings. Whilst my family were hardly the upper-echelons of the town, I was undoubtedly culturally privileged, and lived very much within the local bubble. We never travelled far; I only went abroad for the first time when I was 17, and, with such a comfortable life, it did not occur to me that I was missing out. With this happy upbringing in mind, it was scarring to learn of the evil that was right under my nose all along. Since the beginning of the millennium, RAF Menwith Hill has been directing unmanned drones to bomb innocent civilians in the Yemen.
In an area of sleepy, idyllic villages, Betty’s famous cafes and Yorkshire Tea, North Yorkshire is a British paradise. Yet, this paradise is also a place of murder. It is the town where Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared in 1926, and the location of a handful of the murders of The Yorkshire Ripper. Yet, most of all, it is a place from which mass killing is ordered. Due to the secrecy of their operations, it is not known how many Yemeni people are targeted from Menwith Hill alone, but human rights group Reprieve suggest that a significant proportion of the 100,000 killed by 2019 were targeted from this airbase.
As part of the USA’s targeted killing programme, RAF Menwith Hill intercepts more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day, in an attempt to track down and kill enemies of the US. 600 British personnel work alongside American military counterparts at this base, utilising disturbingly-named software programmes such as GHOSTHUNTER and GHOSTWOLF to locate their targets. NSA, the National Security Agency, recently released information that this software can be used ‘to locate targets when they log onto the internet’. Once found, individuals can be targeted by almost immediate, unmanned drone strikes, regularly killing hundreds of harmless civilians in the process.
For the Harrogate locals working at Menwith Hill, their day jobs simply become an endless series of video games; locate target, strike, repeat. Yet, for those on the ground in Yemen, these video games are their real lives. When visiting the Yemen in 2015, MSF emergency coordinator Karline Kleijer recorded that the children there have a game called ‘One, two, three, airstrike’, at which they all fling themselves to the ground. What these children do not know is that the middle-class men of Harrogate are joining in their games halfway across the globe – and that these men will, inevitably, always win.
Yet, the lack of information provided to the British public has meant that little progress has been achieved to stop this unlawful bombing in recent years. As with the majority of current US administration, misinformation on the topic of drone warfare is rife. In a letter to the ICO, charity Reprieve recorded the experience of the al-Manthari family in Yemen, who were caught in a 2018 drone strike sent from Menwith Hill. While the US claimed the strike had killed members of Al-Qaida, Reprieve claim that all of the victims of this strike were civilians. Often hidden from discourse on drone warfare is the plain fact that GHOSTHUNTER cansometimes get it wrong, leading to a futile, large-scale loss of life.
Having regularly attended debating club at my Harrogate Sixth Form, we frequently touched on the topic of unmanned drone-bombing in the Yemen. Yet, what they failed to tell me was that we were all complicit in this crisis. With little intervention, RAF Menwith Hill has been free to lead the way for software programmes such as GHOSTHUNTER. Its success at the North Yorkshire airbase has meant that this surveillance has been rolled out by the NSA at bases in both Ayios Nikolaos, Cyprus, and Misawa in Japan, inevitably leading to many more drone bombings. In 2008, Menwith Hill was responsible for 99% of FORNSAT geolocation data, and still to this day it plays an integral part in the US’ targeted killing programme.
Disregarding the increasing controversy around the airbase, RAF Menwith Hill has recently seen significant expansion. In a programme named ‘Project Phoenix’, the airbase’s number of employees increased from 1,800 to 2,500 in 2015, whilst $68 million was spent solely on a new generator plant hoped to provide power for new supercomputers at the site. With the NSA stating openly that this expansion programme was designed ‘to provide qualitatively new capabilities for intelligence-led warfare’, it seems disarmament was never on the agenda.
Indeed, the number of RAF airbases involved in the US targeted killing programme has only increased in recent years. In 2013, it was exposed that RAF Waddington had been flying RPAS over Afghanistan from its base in rural Lincolnshire, and Waddington is now home to 13 Squadron’s ‘Reaper’ – the only UK drone involved in the US-Afghan war that is armed. Despite significant protests from the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, little has been done to reduce Waddington’s involvement in unmanned drone warfare, and in 2016 it saw a £35.4 million NSA-funded upgrade.
Whilst human rights groups such as Reprieve and online news publications such as The Intercept have forced the British public to become more aware of the UK’s role in drone warfare in recent years, there is still a long way to go. In order to prevent unlawful bombing and force US airbases in the UK to be transparent, it is imperative that awareness be raised further. The efforts of singer Declan McKenna to publicise the issue in his recent single ‘British Bombs’ should be commended; in the oddly upbeat tune, McKenna discusses the integral position of the UK within the arms trade, and directly references ‘British bombs in the Yemen’. With his audience largely consisting of teenagers and younger adults, it is refreshing to hear indie-rock music that is so educational and politically switched-on.
With these horrors under my nose for my entire childhood life, I regret that I was never educated on the reality of my surroundings. As with the majority of British foreign policy, the controversy surrounding the air-base was quickly swept under the carpet, and to this day I am certain that very few Harrogate locals have even the slightest clue of its purpose. The happy memories of seeing the ‘golf balls’ on the horizon during frequent family hikes on Ilkley Moor will now forever be tainted, and I deeply regret ever celebrating that idyllic view. Yet, the air-base will remain at the forefront of the Yorkshire Dales for the foreseeable future, and paradise will continue to be stained with blood.