February 3, 2017 Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger / The New York Times & Ayesha Rascoe / Reuters
Almost everything that could go wrong did. The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children.
Raid in Yemen:
Risky From the Start and Costly in the End Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger / The New York Times
WASHINGTON (February 1, 2017) – Just five days after taking office, over dinner with his newly installed Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Trump was presented with the first of what will be many life-or-death decisions: whether to approve a commando raid that risked the lives of American Special Operations forces and foreign civilians alike.
President Barack Obama’s national security aides had reviewed the plans for a risky attack on a small, heavily guarded brick home of a senior Qaeda collaborator in a mountainous village in a remote part of central Yemen. But Mr. Obama did not act because the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night and the next one would come after his term had ended.
With two of his closest advisers, Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, joining the dinner at the White House along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Mr. Trump approved sending in the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, hoping the raid early last Sunday would scoop up cellphones and laptop computers that could yield valuable clues about one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. Vice President Mike Pence and Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, also attended the dinner.
As it turned out, almost everything that could go wrong did. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be present as the body of the American commando killed in the raid was returned home, the first military death on the new commander in chief’s watch.
The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed.
There are allegations -- which the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday night are most likely correct -- that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children. The dead include, by the account of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.
Mr. Trump on Sunday hailed his first counterterrorism operation as a success, claiming the commandos captured “important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world.”
A statement by the military’s Central Command on Wednesday night that acknowledged the likelihood of civilian casualties also said that the recovered materials had provided some initial information helpful to counterterrorism analysts. The statement did not provide details.
But the mission’s casualties raise doubts about the months of detailed planning that went into the operation during the Obama administration and whether the right questions were raised before its approval. Typically, the president’s advisers lay out the risks, but Pentagon officials declined to characterize any discussions with Mr. Trump.
A senior administration official said on Wednesday night that the Defense Department had conducted a legal review of the operation that Mr. Trump approved and that a Pentagon lawyer had signed off on it.
Mr. Trump’s new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly. Indeed, the Pentagon is drafting such plans to accelerate activities against the Qaeda branch in Yemen.
But doing that also raises the possibility of error. “You can mitigate risk in missions like this, but you can’t mitigate risk down to zero,” said William Wechsler, a former top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.
In this case, the assault force of several dozen commandos, which also included elite soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, was jinxed from the start. Qaeda fighters were somehow tipped off to the stealthy advance toward the village -- perhaps by the whine of American drones that local tribal leaders said were flying lower and louder than usual.
Through a communications intercept, the commandos knew that the mission had been somehow compromised, but pressed on toward their target roughly five miles from where they had been flown into the area. “They kind of knew they were screwed from the beginning,” one former SEAL Team 6 official said.
With the crucial element of surprise lost, the Americans and Emiratis found themselves in a gun battle with Qaeda fighters who took up positions in other houses, a clinic, a school and a mosque, often using women and children as cover, American military officials said in interviews this week.
The commandos were taken aback when some of the women grabbed weapons and started firing, multiplying the militant firepower beyond what they had expected.
The Americans called in airstrikes from helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft that helped kill some 14 Qaeda fighters, but not before an MV-22 Osprey aircraft involved in the operation experienced a “hard landing,” injuring three more American personnel on board. The Osprey, which the Marine Corps said cost $75 million, was badly damaged and had to be destroyed by an airstrike.
The raid, some details of which were first reported by The Washington Post, also destroyed much of the village of Yakla, and left senior Yemeni government officials seething. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid on Monday in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”
Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni fellow for Reprieve, a London-based human rights group, said he spoke by phone to a tribal sheikh in the village, Jabbr Abu Soraima, who told him: “People were afraid to leave their houses because the sound of choppers and drones were all over the sky. Everyone feared of being hit by the drones or shot by the soldiers on the ground.”
After initially denying there were any civilian casualties, Pentagon officials backtracked somewhat on Sunday after reports from the Yemeni authorities begin trickling in and grisly photographs of bloody children purportedly killed in the attack appeared on social media sites affiliated with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that some of the women were combatants.
The operation was the first known American-led ground mission in Yemen since December 2014, when members of SEAL Team 6 stormed a village in southern Yemen in an effort to free an American photojournalist held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the raid ended with the kidnappers killing the journalist and a South African held with him.
That mission and the raid over the weekend revealed the shortcomings of secretive military operations in Yemen. The United States was forced to withdraw the last 125 Special Operations advisers from the country in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Americans’ main counterterrorism partner.
The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering was a significant blow to blunting the advance of Al Qaeda’s branch in the country and keeping tabs on their plots.
The Pentagon has tried to start rebuilding its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, however; last year, American Special Operations forces helped Emirati troops evict Qaeda fighters from the port city of Mukalla.
Sean D. Naylor contributed reporting.
US Military Officials: Trump-ordered Raid in Yemen
That Killed US Navy SEAL Was Approved
'Without Sufficient Intelligence' Ayesha Rascoe / Reuters
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware (February 1, 2017) -- The US military said on Wednesday it was looking into whether more civilians were killed in a raid on Al Qaeda in Yemen on the weekend, in the first operation authorized by President Donald Trump as commander in chief.
US Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens died in the raid on a branch of Al Qaeda, also known as AQAP, in al Bayda province, which the Pentagon said also killed 14 militants. Medics at the scene, however, said about 30 people, including 10 women and children, were killed.
US Central Command said in a statement that an investigating team had "concluded regrettably that civilian noncombatants were likely killed" during Sunday's raid. It added that children may have been among the casualties.
Central Command said its assessment "seeks to determine if there were any still-undetected civilian casualties in the ferocious firefight."
US military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL 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.
The Pentagon directed queries about the officials' characterization of the raid to US Central Command, which pointed only to its statement on Wednesday.
The US officials said the extremists' base had been identified as a target before the Obama administration left office on January 20, but President Barack Obama held off approving a raid ahead of his departure.
A White House official said the operation was thoroughly vetted by the previous administration and the previous defense secretary had signed off on it in January. The raid was delayed for operational reasons, the White House official said.
The military officials who spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity said "a brutal firefight" took the lives of Owens and at least 15 Yemeni women and children. One of the dead was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a militant killed by a 2011 US drone strike. Some of the women were firing at the US force, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.
The American elite forces did not seize any militants or take any prisoners offsite, but White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Wednesday the raid yielded benefits.
"Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil -- is something that I think most service members understand, that that's why they joined the service," Spicer said.
A senior leader in Yemen's Al Qaeda branch, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, and other militants were killed in the gunfight, Al Qaeda said.
One of the three US officials said on-the-ground surveillance of the compound was "minimal, at best." "The decision was made . . . to leave it to the incoming administration, partly in the hope that more and better intelligence could be collected," that official said.
As Sunday's firefight intensified, the raiders called in Marine helicopter gunships and Harrier jump jets, and then two MV-22 Osprey vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft to extract the SEALs.
One of the two suffered engine failure, two of the officials said, and hit the ground so hard that two crew members were injured, and one of the Marine jets had to launch a precision-guided bomb to destroy it.
Trump traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Wednesday in an unexpected visit to meet with the family of Owens, who had been a chief special warfare operator.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney.
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