The fallout from a botched U.S. special forces raid last month that killed at least 23 Yemeni civilians as well as a Navy SEAL will almost certainly undermine U.S. counterterror efforts in the conflict-ridden country, analysts say.
Following the disastrous outcome of the Trump administration’s first counterterror operation, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the U.S. to run special ops ground missions on its territory, home to one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches.
Images of Yemini civilians who died in the raid, including Nawar Anwar al-Awlaki, the 8-year-old U.S. citizen and daughter of deceased al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, set off a firestorm of controversy online. The raid’s civilian death toll has created a major perception problem for Yemen’s embattled government, which benefits from U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting on its behalf in a nearly two-year war against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.
Al Qaeda is seizing on the failed raid as a PR coup, releasing a recording from its leader Qassim al-Rimi this week that openly mocks the U.S. president.
But the Trump administration has been steadfast in characterizing the Jan. 29 strike in Al Bayda Governorate as a success, despite the civilian death toll and the critical analysis. The military says the operation, in which a U.S. aircraft crashed and had to be destroyed, resulted in the deaths of at least 14 al Qaeda militants, including a leader, and potentially valuable intelligence.
“A political blow and PR disaster for the Trump administration.”
But Sen. John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, wasn’t convinced by the White House’s proclamations. Instead, he described the operation as a failure. “We need insurances that they will do everything they can to prevent such an occurrence again,” the senator said.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, was even less generous, telling VICE News the raid was undoubtedly “a political blow and PR disaster for the Trump administration.” He added it would likely hamper future U.S. counterterror efforts in the country.
Looking to move beyond the Obama administration’s tactics, which relied heavily on drone warfare to take out al Qaeda’s leaders, operatives, and training camps in Yemen, Trump has pledged a more aggressive campaign against Islamist militants. “If the Trump administration had decided it wants to ramp up these types of (ground) operations to gather intelligence on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, then this would negatively impact the U.S.’s ability to do so,” said Roggio.
Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the raid “outraged many inside and outside Yemen,” further strengthening sentiment against the U.S. counterterror campaign.
“American raids inside Yemen have been unpopular for years, and the raid galvanized people against such tactics,” he told VICE News.
The latest failure will further blemish the U.S.’s standing in Yemen, which has suffered in the wake of its controversial backing of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.
The U.S. provides backing in the form of weapons, intelligence, logistical support, and military advice to the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling on the side of Yemen’s internationally recognized government against Tehran-backed Houthi rebels. The latter have captured large parts of the west of the country, including the capital, Sana’a. The conflict, effectively a proxy war between the regional arch-rivals of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, has cost 16,000 lives, including at least 10,000 civilians, and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Roggio said that while the U.S. has occasionally struck Houthi targets, typically in response to the rebels’ actions, it had generally limited its involvement in the Houthi conflict, while aggressively targeting al Qaeda.
Hassan said that the U.S. was seen as reluctant to provide full support for the Saudi-led coalition, which many hoped would speed up the fight against the Houthis, and allow for precision targeting and the reduction of civilian casualties.
“In this sense, the raid is seen as the U.S. not doing enough against the anti-government forces but willing to go aggressively against al Qaeda, with little regard to the consequences,” he said. “This will make the Arab coalition and forces on the ground less willing to cooperate with the Americans on this anti-al Qaeda front.”
Citing military and intelligence officials, NBC reported this week that the primary goal of the mission was to kill or capture Qassim al-Rimi, the head of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, and the same leader who this week mocked the U.S. president. The White House rejected such claims on Tuesday, insisting the mission was an intelligence-gathering raid. But those claims, too, were subject to additional scrutiny.
There are differing reports from U.S. and Yemeni officials as to what has changed in the relationship in the aftermath of the raid. While Yemeni officials said they had requested that there be no further ground raids without explicit approval, CNN cited an unnamed U.S. defense official as saying “nothing has changed” in terms of restrictions. The defense official said Yemen was notified of the raid before it happened.