Chaotic Ye­men raid still re­ver­ber­ates for pres­i­dent

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISSY RYAN AND THOMAS GIB­BONS- NEFF

Al­most as soon as the team of U.S. and Emi­rati com­man­dos slipped into the dark­ened vil­lage, their weapons shoul­dered in the moon­less night, a sur­prise coun­ter­at­tack erupted and a vet­eran Navy SEAL was hit.

Strug­gling to hold off an es­ca­lat­ing fusil­lade from al-Qaeda fighters and armed Ye­meni tribes­men, the U.S. forces, fear­ing the worst for their in­jured com­rade, made an ur­gent re­quest for a he­li­copter to evac­u­ate Chief Petty Of­fi­cer Wil­liam “Ryan” Owens.

The 36-year-old SEAL, who would later die of his wounds, is now at the cen­ter of a de­bate over the first coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tion of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, one that has pro­vided am­mu­ni­tion for crit­ics of the new pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing process and dealt a po­ten­tial blow to fu­ture ac­tion against one of the world’s most po­tent mil­i­tant groups.

Pres­i­dent Trump paid trib­ute to the fallen SEAL on Tues­day night in his ad­dress to a joint ses­sion of Congress, sin­gling out Owens’s widow, Car­ryn, in a sharply emo­tional episode that jux­ta­posed the pres­i­dent’s as­ser­tions about the suc­cess of the raid with his ap­par­ent at­tempts to dis­tance him­self from the crit­i­cism it has gen­er­ated.

Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials, the dis­cus­sions lead­ing up to the Jan. 29 raid, in­tended as the first step in a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions in Ye­men, marked a de­par­ture

from the more hands-on, de­lib­er­a­tive process used by the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The raid, the prod­uct of a more ab­bre­vi­ated White House process, has been fol­lowed by con­fu­sion within the U.S. gov­ern­ment over how op­er­a­tions against al-Qaeda in Ye­men will pro­ceed. It has also gen­er­ated fric­tion with a key coun­tert­er­ror­ism ally, smart­ing from the lack of ad­e­quate no­tice about the raid and, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal re­ports, up to 31 Ye­meni civil­ian deaths.

The raid, which took place just over a week into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, came as U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials sought to re­store their coun­tert­er­ror­ism ca­pa­bil­ity in Ye­men, se­verely dam­aged in the coun­try’s on­go­ing civil con­flict. In 2015, the United States was forced to sus­pend a long-stand­ing pro­gram that part­nered Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces with Ye­meni troops on the ground, se­verely lim­it­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to track and dis­rupt a feared mil­i­tant ad­ver­sary, al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP).

Long seen as a par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing branch of al-Qaeda, the group has used the chaos that fol­lowed the 2011 Arab Spring to ex­pand its in­flu­ence, seiz­ing ter­ri­tory and re­cruit­ing sup­port­ers from Ye­men’s tribal so­ci­ety. It has also demon­strated an am­bi­tion to strike the U.S. home­land.

Hop­ing that ex­panded op­er­a­tions would pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to re­cover in­for­ma­tion that would in­crease their un­der­stand­ing of AQAP’s net­work and goals, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials last fall de­vel­oped pro­pos­als to re­sume a more ro­bust coun­tert­er­ror­ism pro­gram.

Colin Kahl, a for­mer of­fi­cial who over­saw Mid­dle East is­sues at the Pen­tagon and was na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, said a pro­posal put for­ward by the Pen­tagon in the fi­nal weeks of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would have ex­panded mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties to con­duct part­nered ground op­er­a­tions and placed ad­di­tional Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions and avi­a­tion as­sets in the re­gion. “This was a big piece of busi­ness,” Kahl said.

In early Jan­uary, White House of­fi­cials ex­am­ined the mil­i­tary re­quest but de­cided to table a de­ci­sion for the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, rec­om­mend­ing to in­com­ing of­fi­cials that they con­duct a thor­ough re­view of the pro­posal.

On Jan. 25, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis re­quested ur­gent ap­proval at a din­ner meet­ing with Trump of a night­time mis­sion that rep­re­sented a first step in ex­pand­ing ac­tiv­i­ties against AQAP. The meet­ing was also at­tended by Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; then­na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn; CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo; and a hand­ful of oth­ers. Trump approved the op­er­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to one se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who like oth­ers spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to pro­vide new de­tails of the in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions, Trump was pro­vided in­for­ma­tion on the pro­posed raid ear­lier that day, dur­ing his morn­ing in­tel­li­gence meet­ing. He also briefly dropped by a dis­cus­sion on the topic that Flynn was hold­ing in his of­fice.

The fol­low­ing day, the op­er­a­tion was dis­cussed at a pre­vi­ously sched­uled meet­ing among sub­Cab­i­net of­fi­cials chaired by K.T. McFar­land, Trump’s deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser.

Asked what risks the op­er­a­tion car­ried, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ticked off a list of pos­si­ble prob­lems that mil­i­tary of­fi­cials be­lieved could oc­cur, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial for U.S. or civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and the pos­si­bil­ity that mil­i­tants might be brac­ing for an at­tack, of­fi­cials said. Although of­fi­cials be­lieved AQAP might be pre­par­ing for an un­spec­i­fied as­sault rather than oper­at­ing with knowl­edge of the Jan. 29 raid, the op­er­a­tion still posed an el­e­vated risk to U.S. forces.

In part be­cause the op­er­a­tion had al­ready been approved by Trump and in part be­cause the meet­ing was also sched­uled to cover other top­ics, dis­cus­sion of the raid was as short as about 25 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral ac­counts, and as long as 40, ac­cord­ing to the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

In ei­ther case, the brisk treat­ment of a high-risk op­er­a­tion stands in con­trast to sim­i­lar de­lib­er­a­tions dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, known for its ex­ten­sive lit­i­ga­tion of risks in mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties and tight con­trol of tac­ti­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

“In pre­vi­ous op­er­a­tions like this, we would sit around the table for two hours and scrub ev­ery­thing. The in­tel­li­gence agen­cies would put down maps. We’d have con­gres­sional folks talk about reach­ing out to Congress. The State Depart­ment would do its po­lit­i­cal as­sess­ment,” Kahl said. “You can’t cover the com­plex­ity of a topic like that in 23 min­utes.”

For­mer of­fi­cials have also crit­i­cized the raid, say­ing it has strained re­la­tions with the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment. U.S. of­fi­cials said Matthew Tueller, the U.S. am­bas­sador to Ye­men, had promised to no­tify Pres­i­dent Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi as the op­er­a­tion got un­der­way. Diplo­mats said Hadi was no­ti­fied of the raid.

Af­ter re­ports of the raid and a high civil­ian death toll be­came pub­lic, the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment re­acted, first sig­nal­ing it had sus­pended U.S. per­mis­sion to mount ground op­er­a­tions and then pub­licly back­track­ing on that move. In an­other in­di­ca­tion of the in­ter­nal con­fu­sion that has char­ac­ter­ized the early Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, of­fi­cials at the State and De­fense de­part­ments said that raids had not been sus­pended, while the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the sus­pen­sion re­mains in ef­fect.

The State Depart­ment and the Ye­meni Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton de­clined to com­ment.

Eric Pelof­sky, who served as spe­cial as­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and se­nior di­rec­tor for North Africa and Ye­men on Obama’s na­tional se­cu­rity staff, said the raid “risked sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to our coun­tert­er­ror­ism co­op­er­a­tion with the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment. We do not yet know what the cost of that dam­age will be.”

David Maxwell, a for­mer Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer who is as­so­ciate di­rec­tor for Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Se­cu­rity Stud­ies Pro­gram, said Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­man­ders would have re­viewed the raid pro­posal care­fully and signed off only if they thought it was a vi­able plan.

“But the en­emy has a vote, and there is no per­fect in­tel­li­gence,” Maxwell said. “Ev­ery mis­sion is high-risk, and we al­ways have to be will­ing to ac­cept the ca­su­al­ties.”

Such risks were cer­tainly on the minds of the Navy SEALs that night af­ter an elite Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions air reg­i­ment dropped them at their in­ser­tion point in re­mote cen­tral Ye­men.

Ac­cord­ing to Ye­meni of­fi­cials, AQAP fighters had cho­sen the vil­lage of Yak­laa as a train­ing site be­cause of its re­mote­ness and its sym­pa­thetic res­i­dents. They de­scribed Ab­dul-Raoof al-Dha­hab, an im­por­tant lo­cal tribal leader, as an AQAP sup­porter.

In an­other il­lus­tra­tion of the com­plex­ity of the en­vi­ron­ment fac­ing U.S. forces, Dha­hab had re­cently struck a deal with the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment to fight ri­val Houthi rebels, mak­ing him both a U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism tar­get and an ally of the U.S.-backed ef­fort to re­store Hadi’s gov­ern­ment-in­ex­ile to power.

At about 1 a.m., the com­bined team of roughly two dozen U.S. and Emi­rati com­man­dos ar­rived in Yak­laa, a col­lec­tion of mud­brick houses scat­tered among hilly ter­rain and bor­dered by a mine­field. Ac­cord­ing to Ye­meni se­cu­rity and tribal of­fi­cials, the for­eign forces used non­lethal grenades and sup­pressed ri­fles as they fought their way into the homes of Dha­hab and an­other sus­pect, both of whom were killed.

Ye­meni and tribal of­fi­cials de­scribed a chaotic scene that fol­lowed, say­ing that tribal lead­ers, even those with­out an af­fil­i­a­tion with AQAP, took up arms out of loy­alty to Dha­hab and a de­sire to pro­tect their vil­lage.

“Any per­son who has dig­nity and honor would not stand by and watch his neigh­bors and rel­a­tives and tribes­men be­ing at­tacked and do noth­ing,” said Saleh Hus­sein al-Aameri, a tribal leader who was close enough to hear the gun­fire.

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials pro­vid­ing new in­for­ma­tion about the raid, the AQAP fighters with­drew to a nearby build­ing, un­leash­ing grenades and gun­fire de­spite the women and chil­dren around them. Un­able to shoot their way out of the en­gage­ment, U.S. forces called for air sup­port to at­tack the build­ing.

The com­man­dos gath­ered what they could — com­puter equip­ment, doc­u­ments and pic­tures of the now-dead mi­dlevel tribal lead­ers they had hoped to cap­ture — be­fore with­draw­ing un­der the cover of Ma­rine Co­bra gun­ships and Har­rier at­tack jets that be­gan straf­ing Ye­meni po­si­tions with their 25mm can­nons and rock­ets.

“Any­thing that moved in the area was tar­geted by Amer­i­can he­li­copters,” Aameri said.

With the num­ber of in­jured U.S. per­son­nel ris­ing, a Ma­rine Quick Re­ac­tion Force was launched from the USS Makin Is­land, an am­phibi­ous as­sault ship in the Gulf of Aden. But that evac­u­a­tion op­er­a­tion went awry, too: Three ad­di­tional ser­vice mem­bers were wounded when an ap­proach­ing MV-22 Os­prey lost power and hit the ground. The $75 mil­lion air­craft was then scut­tled to keep it out of AQAP hands.

It’s not known whether Emi­rati forces were killed or wounded in the op­er­a­tion.

The U.S. mil­i­tary is con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing a probe into re­ports of non­com­bat­ant deaths.

While crit­ics have ques­tioned the in­tel­li­gence gained in the raid, lead­ers at the White House and Pen­tagon have re­peat­edly de­fended its value.

The White House was dealt a blow last week when news re­ports re­vealed that Owens’s fa­ther, Bill, ques­tioned the ne­ces­sity of the raid and had re­fused to meet with Trump when his son’s re­mains were repa­tri­ated in early Fe­bru­ary.

Speak­ing to Congress on Tues­day, Trump cited Mat­tis’s de­scrip­tion of the raid as a suc­cess, but the pres­i­dent has also ap­peared to dis­tance him­self from the op­er­a­tion. Ear­lier this week, he said the gen­er­als “lost Ryan.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Car­ryn Owens, cen­ter, the widow of Chief Petty Of­fi­cer Wil­liam “Ryan” Owens, with mem­bers of the first fam­ily on Tues­day night.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.