Raid on Yakla
The Raid on Yakla, or simply 2017 Yemen raid, was a United States-led Special Operations Forces operation carried out on January 29, 2017 in al-Ghayil, a village in the Yakla area of the Al Bayda province in central Yemen, during the Second Yemeni Civil War. Authorized by President Donald Trump, its goal was to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also, as claimed by unnamed sources, targeted the group's leader, Qasim al-Raymi. The operation, the first high level counter-terrorism raid authorized by Trump, did not follow the rigorous planning procedures of the prior two administrations. United States Central Command (CENTCOM) was involved with the Special Operations Command, which oversees global counter-terrorism military operations, and the CIA.
One DEVGRU operator was killed and three other DEVGRU operators were wounded in the raid. Between 10 and 30 civilians, including the eight-year-old American daughter of the deceased Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, were also killed in the raid along with up to 14 enemy combatants. A Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey was destroyed during the operation.
The raid in Yemen was described as "risky from the start and costly in the end"; the "botched" operation raised questions about the choice to go forward with the raid "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations".
- 1 Background
- 2 The raid
- 3 Secret objective
- 4 Casualties
- 5 Responses
- 6 Aftermath
- 7 References
The United States has supported an ongoing Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen in their campaign against Houthi militants with weapons, intelligence, advice on operations, maritime operations, and refueling of aircraft. The United States also has an ongoing campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The last US-led ground operation against AQAP in Yemen was in 2014. In 2016, the US and Emirati armed forces sent Special Operations forces to Yemen to monitor AQAP. The US conducted eight drone strikes against suspected AQAP operatives in Al Bayda during 2016, and a further strike on January 21, 2017.
The International Crisis Group reported in February 2017 that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula "is stronger than it has ever been" and is "thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy" brought on by Yemen's Civil War. In 2011, AQAP created Ansar Al-Sharia (AAS), a Yemen-based affiliate focused on waging an insurgency rather than international attacks on the West. In the view of the International Crisis Group, AQAP is "an internally diverse organisation with varying layers of support among the local population" and many AAS members and allies are not committed to AQAP's international agenda. As of early 2017, AQAP and AAS were currently in a struggle for territorial control with the Houthi/Saleh forces in the governorates of al-Bayda, Shebwa, Marib, Jawf and Taiz.
The principal targets of the raid were members of the al-Dhahab family and their houses, led by Abdelrauf al-Dhahab. Their clan is influential and Abdelrauf reportedly could call on a tribal force of 800 men. A number of the eighteen sons of patriarch Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Dhahab have joined AQAP or its armed affiliate organizations, including Tariq, Qaid, and Nabil. Qaid was killed by an August 2013 drone strike. Tariq died while leading an AAS takeover of Rada'a, which also claimed the life of his half-brother Hizam, fighting on the other side.
Whether or not Abdelrauf was affiliated with Al Qaeda is disputed. As of 2014, Slate reported, Abdelrauf "skirt[ed] the line between an AQAP sympathizer and outright supporter." Abdelrauf al-Dhahab "repeatedly denied belonging to al-Qaida," and publicly pledged to drive them out of Al Bayda province in 2013. Prior to the raid, Abdelrauf al-Dhahab held a five-day meeting with military officials in the US-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The military reportedly gave him some 15 million riyals (US$60,000) to fight against the Houthi rebels. Hadi government military spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohsen Khasrouf has stated that al-Dhahab was working with the government to retake the city of Rada'a from the Houthis.
The US military reported that the raid had been planned "for months" and is "one in a series of aggressive actions against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen." The Obama administration refused to approve the raid; the Guardian reported that it had been reviewed several times, citing an anonymous government source. Colin Kahl, who served as Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President until January 2017, has publicly stated that "This particular raid was NOT discussed," but that it fell under an expanded plan to authorize military actions prepared by the Department of Defense. Further, Kahl stated, "Obama made no decisions on this before leaving office, believing it represented escalation of U.S. involvement in Yemen." In a report for the Washington Post, multiple defense sources stated they expected the Trump Administration to more readily approve similar operations.
Approval of the raid
The approval of the Yakla raid did not follow the rigorous procedure used during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which involved a Situation Room meeting that detailed the operational plan, operational goals, a risk assessment (to both U.S. personnel and civilians), and a legal assessment of the operation. Instead, the raid was approved over dinner conversations between Trump, his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, his special adviser Steve Bannon, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis, along with General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the plan; then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was also at the dinner. No representatives from the State Department were present, departing from the norms of previous administrations. Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner both reportedly opposed the mission. Flynn reportedly strongly advocated for the mission to President Trump.
The decision did not go through the normal National Security Council (NSC) channels, through which heads or deputy heads of all agencies with a stake in the operation would be consulted. U.S. military officials stated that the assault went forth "without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations."
On January 26, a team of U.S. Navy SEAL DEVGRU operators were staged from Djibouti to the USS Makin Island amphibious readiness group. At dawn on January 29, several dozen commandos from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), as well as operators from the United Arab Emirates, were landed by a pair of MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft near the home of al-Qaeda leader Abdul Rauf al-Dhahab in the mountainous Yakla region of Al-Bayda. While approaching, the operators were informed via a communications intercept that al-Qaeda forces had become aware of their position. The DEVGRU team "found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists."
Surviving villager Sheikh Abdelilah Ahmed al-Dhahab reported that his eleven-year-old son, Ahmed Abdelilah Ahmed al Dahab, was the first to address the soldiers, asking "Who are you?" He was fatally shot.
At the village, the US-UAE team engaged in a heavy firefight with the al-Qaeda forces. US helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft also fired on the town. One of the U.S. operators, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was struck by gunfire above his armor plating and fatally wounded. During the evacuation of the DEVGRU operators, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) MV-22B Osprey was damaged in a hard landing (crash landed) after losing power, injuring three additional American operators aboard. The Osprey was subsequently destroyed by a friendly airstrike carried out by a Harrier jet to avoid any of the crashed aircraft's sensitive electronics from being captured by the enemy.
During the raid, President Trump did not go into the Situation Room or monitor events as they unfolded.
Military and intelligence officials have reportedly said that the raid had a secret objective – to capture or kill Qasim al-Rimi, a U.S.-designated terrorist and the emir (leader) of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who shortly after the raid, on 5 February 2017, released an audio message being shared online taunting U.S. President Donald Trump. The audio recording purportedly features al-Rimi's voice referring to Trump, who authorized the raid, as the "fool of the White House" who "got slapped" early on in his role as Commander in Chief. The audio clip was found to be authentic by sources in the military. The Associated Press reported that the audio has not been independently verified, but it was "similar to that of previous recordings by al-Rimi".
The White House and Department of Defense have never confirmed that the aim of the mission was to kill or capture al-Rimi and have instead described the mission, which included the extremely rare use of ground troops on Yemeni soil, as a "site exploitation mission", a euphemism for an intelligence gathering operation. NBC News reported, it isn't yet clear whether al-Rimi was tipped off to the raid, whether he simply wasn't there, or whether he escaped when the special operations forces arrived.
According to military officials it was the prospect of killing or capturing al-Rimi that convinced the U.S. chain of command that the mission was worth the risk.
The raid killed three "prominent members of Al-Qaeda": Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, Sultan al-Dhahab, and Seif al-Nims. The US military reported that fourteen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters were killed. Arwa Baghdadi, a 35-year-old Saudi woman who had traveled to Yemen to join Al Qaeda, was killed in the raid; before leaving Saudi Arabia, she had been on trial facing terrorism charges. CENTCOM later released clips of the raid on February 3 and claimed that two of the Al Qaeda leaders who were killed, Sultan al-Dhahab and Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, were longstanding AQAP operational planners and weapons experts. CENTCOM also claimed after releasing the clips that several of the 14 militants who were killed were also terrorist network leaders and facilitators.
Following the raid there were articles disputing the affiliation of the raid's targets, and consequences of the raid, with Farea Al-Muslimi, visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center and co-founder of the youth-oriented Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, stating that Abdulraoof al-Dhahab's death will stir anti-US sentiment—not because he belonged to AQAP, but because he didn’t.
The U.S. military initially denied there were any civilian casualties, but later declared it was investigating if they occurred. The Pentagon later confirmed that civilians, including women and children, were likely killed in the attack. A Yemeni government official in Al Bayda Governorate said on January 31 that at least eight women and seven children (ranging in age from 3 to 13) were killed. Human Rights Watch reported on February 24 that at least 14 civilians, including nine children, were killed in the operation. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a London-based NGO, found that the operation went "dreadfully wrong" and that, according to local villagers, 25 civilians, who were not members of AQAP, were killed; this included nine children under the age of 13, with the youngest being a three-month-old baby. The BIJ listed the names and ages of the dead children. Beside the nine children killed, the BIJ reports that one pregnant woman was also killed.
Among those killed was U.S. citizen Nawar al-Awlaki, also known as Nora, the eight-year-old daughter of Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a 2011 drone strike. The grandfather of the girl, Nasser al-Awlaki, said she was hit by a bullet to the neck and died two hours later.
Destruction of buildings and killing of livestock
When U.S. warplanes struck the village, they hit more than a dozen buildings and killed more than 120 goats, sheep, and donkeys.
AQAP later issued a statement acknowledging the raid, mourned for their killed fighters, and referred to the raid as a massacre.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing that the raid was "highly successful" and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, "The mission was a success by all accounts." A national security adviser in the administration of former President George W. Bush, Juan Zarate, said that even though the raid had not killed al-Rimi, it could still yield smaller victories: "Certainly, if the goal is to capture the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that didn't happen. It wasn't successful in that regard. On the other hand, a number of al Qaeda leaders were killed and al Qaeda was disrupted, at least in terms of that cell. They understand that the US is willing to lean forward, and perhaps they're being deterred or disrupted in their activities." New York Times journalist David Sanger, who covered the raid, said on February 2, "It’s hard to call this much of a success yet, because we don’t know what the value was of the information they were trying to exploit, which came mostly from computers and cell phones. And from everything we have heard, they haven’t had a chance to assess that yet."
Spicer asserted that the raid "gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil." However, the only example that Pentagon officials were able to point to was an outdated instructional video on bomb making that was of no current value. Multiple senior officials told NBC News that the raid had yielded no significant intelligence and that they had seen no evidence that the intelligence would save lives or prevent future attacks.
The International Crisis Group's senior analyst on the Arabian Peninsula, April Longley Alley, described the raid as "a good example of what not to do" and wrote that the raid "ignore[d] the local political context, to the detriment of an effective counter-terrorism strategy." Richard Atwood, also of the International Crisis Group, said that an operation like the Yakla raid is more likely to radicalize Yemeni tribesmen, strengthen the hand of al-Qaida, and "feed anti-Americanism", particularly when civilians are killed.
Karen J. Greenberg, the director of Fordham University's Center on National Security, said that Nawar al-Awlaki's death will be used by al Qaeda propagandists: "The perception will be that it's not enough to kill al-Awlaki—that the U.S. had to kill the entire family."
On February 28, during Trump's address to a joint session of Congress, he claimed that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated the raid was "a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies."
In early March 2017, several US officials revealed that US Special Operation Forces captured about 1 Terabyte's worth of information on AQAP in the raid, and that the US was actively trying to locate and monitor hundreds of al-Qaeda contacts obtained from the raid.
Subsequent investigations and calls for inquiry on planning
As of February 27, 2017, The Yakla raid was the subject of three pending Defense Department investigations. The first, a "15-6 investigation", is a routine review conducted by U.S. Central Command. The second is a "civilian casualty credibility assessment", which may lead to a more formal investigation. This investigation will review reports that as many as 30 civilians were killed, including women and young children. The third inquiry is an "aviation mishap investigation" to review how the MV-22 Osprey, a $70 million U.S. warplane, became so badly damaged in the raid that it had to be destroyed.
William Owens, the father of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, who was killed in the raid, refused to meet with President Donald Trump at Dover Air Force Base after his son's death. Owens also criticized the administration's handling of the raid, and demanded an investigation into its planning and approval. William Owens told the Miami Herald, "I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn't let me talk to him. Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen—everything was missiles and drones—because there was not a target worth one American life. Now all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?" Owens stated: "Don't hide behind my son's death to prevent an investigation. The government owes my son an investigation."
Congressional Democrats have called for a briefing from the Pentagon on the raid. In a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas, U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (Democrat of Arizona) wrote: "The chaotic events that unfolded in Yemen should prompt an urgent inquiring from our committee." In a separate statement, Representative Ted Lieu of California said that he was "'highly disturbed' by the reports that the mission was approved without full intelligence" and that "Given this context, the lingering questions surrounding the Yemen mission are deeply troubling and they demand answers. I have requested a briefing on this counterterrorism operation from the Department of Defense."
The human rights group Amnesty International, in a letter to Defense Secretary Mattis, called for "a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation" into the raid, "signaling that you take seriously the issues of civilian casualties and respect for international humanitarian law." Human Rights Watch also called upon the U.S. to "credibly investigate" civilian deaths, writing: "The high number of civilian casualties raises concerns that US forces and the armed group failed to take all necessary measures to minimize loss of civilian life, as required by the laws of war."
Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi, the Foreign Minister of Yemen, reacted by writing "The extrajudicial killings and killing civilians are condemned acts that support terrorism" on his official Twitter account. The New York Times, citing U.S. officials, reported, "Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country." The AP, however, citing an official statement from foreign minister Al-Mekhlafi, didn't go as far. Mekhlafi called for a "reassessment" of the raid, but he said it was "not true" that there was a demand for a halt in US operations. "Yemen continues to cooperate with the United States and continues to abide by all the agreements", Mekhlafi said.
According to a senior U.S. military official, Navy SEALs attempted to conduct another raid inside Yemen in early March 2017, but aborted the mission at the last minute.
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'We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,' another defense official said. 'We really struggled with getting the White House comfortable with getting boots on the ground in Yemen,' the former official said, like others speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. 'Since the new administrations has come in, the approvals for what the Pentagon has appeared to have gone up.'
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