WASHINGTON >> The White House on Thursday insisted that the risky ground raid personally approved by President Donald Trump against al-Qaida targets in Yemen was a “successful operation,” despite the death of a Navy SEAL and the Pentagon’s conclusion that civilians, including children, were “likely” killed in the operation.
“This was a very, very well thought-out and executed effort,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. He called it “a successful operation by all standards.”
Spicer stressed that while the operation was the first counterterrorism raid approved by Trump, planning had occurred on President Barack Obama’s watch. He said the Defense Department had approved the raid on Dec. 19 and set it to proceed on the next moonless night, which did not happen until after Trump’s inauguration.
Some U.S. military officials reportedly were disputing the Trump administration’s claims, saying that “almost everything went wrong” in a botched covert mission that the president gave the green light to without sufficient intelligence or ground support.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Colin Kahl tweeted on Thursday that the Trump administration’s claim that Obama cleared the operation was “false,” adding that it was “deferred to Trump so he could run a deliberate process.”
Team Trump claim that Obama cleared Yemen raid false;was deferred to Trump so he could run a deliberate process. Instead, he hosted dinner.
— Colin Kahl (@ColinKahl) February 2, 2017
The Pentagon says the operation in Yemen’s Baida province against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, killed 14 militants and seized “valuable and actionable intelligence,” including documents and computers.
But what was supposed to be a lightning raid led to the death of a Navy SEAL, identified as 36-year-old William “Ryan” Owens, in a nearly hour-long firefight. Three more service members were injured when an MV-22 Osprey, sent in to evacuate the wounded, crash-landed after losing power. The damaged $70 million aircraft was later destroyed by a U.S. airstrike so it would not fall into the hands of the militants, according to the Pentagon.
Late on Wednesday, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement that it had concluded that civilians “were likely killed” in the midst of the “ferocious firefight,” and that “casualties may include children.” The statement said the military was looking into whether there “were any still-undetected civilian casualties.”
Medics in the region and local media reported 30 casualties, including at least 10 women and children. The London-based human rights group Reprieve, which monitors civilian casualties of drone strikes, on Thursday said it had obtained evidence of 23 civilian casualties, including a newborn and 10 children.
One of the civilian casualties was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior U.S.-born al-Qaida leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, according to posts by her family on social media. Nawar al-Awlaki, who was known as Nora, also was a U.S. citizen. Her brother, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also died in a drone strike authorized by Obama.
The Pentagon initially denied that there had been civilian casualties. Later, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis acknowledged that an unspecified number of women could have been killed because “there were a lot of female combatants who were part of this.”
International monitoring groups have expressed concern that the death of civilians, especially children, is likely to be used for propaganda, with photos spread on social media in the aftermath of a raid.
“The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP,” the International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based crisis research center, said in a report on Thursday.
“The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics … plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” the group said.
When he was running for president, Trump said he backed killing family members of terrorist suspects.
“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” the presidential candidate said on Fox News in 2015.
The operation was the first U.S.-led ground raid in Yemen since 2014, although U.S. forces have conducted airstrikes against al-Qaida in the country. Since a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes in Yemen in 2015, more than 10,000 people have died and 40,000 have been wounded, according to the United Nations.