Donald Trump has hailed his first counter-terror operation since becoming president a success, but it clearly did not run to script, resulting in the death of a U.S. commando, injuries to six other soldiers, and the deaths of at least 10 women and children, according to Reuters.
Trump said that the raid on an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula compound in Yemen early Sunday had led to the capturing of intelligence that would help prevent future terrorist attacks. Fourteen Al Qaeda militants were killed in the raid in Al Bayda Governorate, according to the U.S. military; Al Qaeda said that Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, a senior leader in Yemen, was among them.
The raid also reportedly resulted in civilian casualties, including Nawar al-Awlaki, the eight-year-old daughter of notorious Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, according to a Facebook post by her uncle.
The girl, whose death has not been confirmed by U.S. officials, would be the second of Awlaki’s children to have been killed by U.S. military operations. While Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, his daughter is not believed to have been a U.S. citizen.
But a photo of the girl has been circulating in social media and human rights groups warn that the raid — the first for the U.S. with troops on the ground since 2014 — could help bolster local sympathies for Al Qaeda in the wartorn country, regarded as one of the terror group’s most dangerous branches.
The group, which has thrived in the lawlessness created by Yemen’s two-year civil war, boasts skilled bomb makers and actively seeks to attack Western targets. It has been linked to successful terror attacks, including the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Boston Marathon bombings, and has unsuccessfully attempted to detonate bombs on U.S. passenger jets on at least three occasions.
Targeting al-Awlaki’s network
Nawar al-Awlaki’s death has not been confirmed by U.S. officials, but she would be the second of Awlaki’s children to have been killed by U.S. military operations.
Her father, a radical cleric known for his outsized influence over English-speaking jihadis, was the first American citizen to be killed by a U.S. drone strike when he was targeted in Yemen in September 2011. Two weeks later, his 16-year-old, Colorado-born son Abdulrahman was mistakenly killed in a drone strike targeting another Al Qaeda suspect, prompting harsh scrutiny of the Obama administration’s drone warfare doctrine.
In a Facebook post, Ammar Al-Aulaqi, a former Yemeni government deputy minister, claimed his niece was “shot several times, with one bullet piercing her neck. She was bleeding for two hours because it was not possible to get her medical attention.”
One of Al Qaeda’s most influential figures, Awlaki had links to a number of high-profile jihadis, including three of the World Trade Center attackers and the Fort Hood shooter. Recordings of his sermons remain widely circulated online, and have reportedly become even more popular among extremists since his assassination.
Born in the United States while his Yemeni father studied on a scholarship, his family moved back to their homeland when Awlaki was seven. He returned to the U.S. to study as a student, and, after becoming radicalized, lived in the U.K. before moving back to Yemen in 2004, where his daughter would likely have been born.
What happened in the raid?
The raid in Yemen began when a drone bombed Dhahab’s home, followed by helicopters delivering U.S. commandos who killed the remaining occupants. The U.S. military said in a statement that the service member had been killed in a firefight at the targeted compound, where three U.S. commandos were also wounded.
It said three service members also sustained injuries at the staging area when their MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft experienced a “hard landing,” although not because it came under enemy fire. The aircraft was was intentionally destroyed by U.S. forces when it was determined it could not be flown.
A local resident speaking to Reuters said that gunmen had then opened fire on the retreating U.S. forces, before helicopters brought into evacuate them bombed the militants and their homes, resulting in a large number of casualties. The raid was carried out by members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the New York Times reported.
Medics at the scene said that about 30 people, including 10 women and children, had been killed, according to Reuters. U.S. military spokesman Army Maj. Josh T. Jacques told VICE News that the military was investigating reports that civilians, including women and children, had been killed; he said that the commandos on the mission had reported coming under fire from “multiple female subjects.”
U.S. Central Command said the name of the dead soldier was being held until his family were notified. It said similar operations had produced intelligence on the terror group’s logistics, recruiting and financing.
“They’re bombing our country”
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that if the civilian casualties were confirmed, the optics of the strike were bad – particularly as the U.S. faces criticism over Trump’s executive order on immigration, which placed restrictions on Yemenis from entering the country.
“Every time the U.S. does something in Yemen, all these civilians see this and say look what the U.S. is doing – they’re bombing our country and killing our civilians,” she said. “I certainly don’t think this is helping the U.S. position abroad.”
But Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News that while Al Qaeda would be seeking to propagandize Nawar al-Awlaki’s death among the other civilian casualties, “that’s really just going to reach people who are already inclined to share their worldview.”
He said that while the American campaign in Yemen since 2009 had succeeded in killing a number of senior Al Qaeda figures, it had failed to destroy the group, which had twice taken over large areas of the country and continued to plot attacks against the West.
During two years of civil war in Yemen between Saudi-backed forces loyal to the government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the U.S. has significantly scaled back its military activities in the country, although it provides assistance by providing arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led campaign. The raid was the first American special forces operation in Yemen since December 2014.
Roggio said it remained to be seen how Trump, who has pledged to increase pressure on Islamist militants worldwide, would approach the Al Qaeda threat in Yemen. Hours after the raid, a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed two suspected Al Qaeda militants in the country.
“I think it is possible that the Trump administration will take a more forward-leaning approach and use more special operations forces,” Roggio said.
CORRECTION (Jan. 30, 7:40 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article stated that Anwar al-Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was the second American killed in a U.S. drone strike. He was actually the third; Samir Khan was also killed in the strike that killed al-Awlaki.