White House says operation that left Navy SEAL and civilians dead was a ‘success.’
The White House on Thursday defended a U.S. special operations raid in Yemen as a “success by all standards,” even though multiple civilians and a Navy SEAL were killed, and the mission was beset with problems.
Sunday’s raid—the first authorized by President Donald Trump—saw U.S. special operations forces enter the Yakla region of Baida province and target a compound occupied by Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula operatives.
Washington views the Al Qaeda affiliate, known for plotting attacks in other countries, as the global terror network’s most dangerous branch.
Navy SEAL Team Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, 36, was killed and three other U.S. troops were wounded in a fierce gunfight. Three more service members were injured when their tilt-rotor aircraft made a “hard landing.” The $75 million MV-22 Osprey had to be destroyed in place to avoid having it fall into enemy hands.
And on Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that several non-combatants, including children, had apparently been killed in the raid.
A Yemeni provincial official had previously said 16 civilians were killed—eight women and eight children—but the Pentagon did not provide numbers.
Washington is also facing questions on whether an eight-year-old American girl died. Local sources say the girl was the daughter of senior Al Qaeda cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaqi, killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
After previously saying the raid snagged an “unbelievable” amount of intelligence, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Thursday the raid had been successful. “When you think of the loss of life throughout America and institutions and in terms of the world, in terms of what some of the individuals could have done, I think it is a successful operation by all standards,” Spicer said.
But he added it was hard to talk of success when an American was killed, and praised the sailor’s sacrifice. He made no mention of the civilian victims.
Spicer said the plan had been under consideration since Nov. 7, and officials under the administration of Barack Obama reviewed and approved it on Jan. 6, but did not proceed because they were waiting for a moonless night—the next one wouldn’t be until after Obama had left office.
But Colin Kahl, a former senior Obama administration security official, said on Twitter that “team Trump didn’t do a careful vetting of the overall proposal or raid” and that Obama had taken no decision, believing the raid represented an escalation of U.S. involvement in Yemen.
The operation was said to have targeted the houses of three tribal chiefs linked to Al Qaeda and a Yemeni official said Apache gunships also hit a school, a mosque and a medical facility all used by Al Qaeda militants.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that AQAP fighters might have known an attack was coming, possibly by increased drone activity in the skies.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said the militants had engaged U.S. forces in a firefight and, to the commandos’ surprise, several women picked up weapons and started firing too. “It was a situation that resulted in our forces… [needing] to call in aerial gunfire support,” he said.
Trump, who has vowed to fight Islamic extremism relentlessly, on Wednesday traveled to an air base in Delaware to receive Owens’s body.
Human Rights Watch said the United States should compensate the families of those “wrongfully” killed or wounded in the raid.
The conflict in Yemen escalated two years ago when a Saudi-led Arab coalition launched air raids against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels, who had taken over the capital and seized swathes of the country’s center and north.