WASHINGTON — Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terror groups in the country, according to American officials.
Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.
While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated on Tuesday — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.
It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his presidency.
Mr. Obama deferred the decision to Mr. Trump, who appeared inclined to grant it: His approval of the Jan. 29 raid came over a dinner four nights earlier with his top national security aides, rather than in the kind of rigorous review in the Situation Room that became fairly routine under President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.
The raid, in which just about everything went wrong, was an early test of Mr. Trump’s national security decision-making — and his willingness to rely on the assurances of his military advisers. His aides say that even though the decision was made over a dinner, it had been fully vetted, and had the requisite legal approvals.
Mr. Trump will soon have to make a decision about the more general request by the Pentagon to allow more of such operations in Yemen without detailed, and often time-consuming, White House review. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will allow that, or how the series of mishaps that marked his first approval of such an operation may have altered his thinking about the human and political risks of such operations.
The Pentagon has said that the main objective of the raid was to recover laptop computers, cellphones and other information that could help fill gaps in its understanding of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leaders have attempted at least three attacks on the United States. But it is unclear whether the information the commandos recovered will prove valuable.
The White House continued its defense of the raid on Tuesday, making no reference to the Yemeni reaction.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, denied reports that the purpose of the attack was to capture or kill any specific Qaeda leader. “The raid that was conducted in Yemen was an intelligence-gathering raid,” he said. “That’s what it was. It was highly successful. It achieved the purpose it was going to get, save the loss of life that we suffered and the injuries that occurred.”
Neither the White House nor the Yemenis have publicly announced the suspension. Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment, but other military and civilian officials confirmed that Yemen’s reaction had been strong.
It was unclear if Yemen’s decision to halt the ground attacks was also influenced by Mr. Trump’s inclusion of the country on his list of nations from which he wants to temporarily suspend all immigration, an executive order that is now being challenged in the federal courts.
According to American civilian and military officials, the Yemeni ban on operations does not extend to military drone attacks, and does not affect the handful of American military advisers who are providing intelligence support to the Yemenis and forces from the United Arab Emirates.
In 2014, Yemen’s government temporarily halted those drones from flying because of botched operations that also killed civilians. But later they quietly resumed, and in recent years they have been increasing in frequency, a sign of the fact that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.
The raid stirred immediate outrage among Yemeni government officials, some of whom accused the Trump administration of not fully consulting with them before the mission. Within 24 hours of the assault on a cluster of houses in a tiny village in mountainous central Yemen, the country’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera this week, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, said that President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi raised concerns about the raid in a meeting with the American ambassador to Yemen in Riyadh on Feb. 2.
“Yemen’s government is a key partner in the war against terrorism,” Mr. Mubarak said in the interview, adding that Yemen’s cooperation should not come “at the expense of the Yemeni citizens and the country’s sovereignty.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged that the raid killed several civilians, including children, and is investigating. The dead include, by the account of relatives, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.
In a sign of the contentiousness that public disclosures of the raid have caused, Pentagon officials on Tuesday provided lawmakers on Capitol Hill with a classified briefing on the mission. One participant in that meeting said military officials told them “they got what they wanted,” without offering details. But Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said afterward that the raid was a failure.
American counterterrorism officials have expressed growing fears about their lack of understanding of Qaeda operations in Yemen since the United States was forced to withdraw the last 125 Special Operations advisers from the country in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Hadi, the Americans’ main counterterrorism partner.
The Pentagon has tried to start rebuilding its counterterrorism operations in Yemen since then. Last May, American Special Operations forces helped Yemeni and Emirati troops evict Qaeda fighters from the port city of Mukalla.
Al Qaeda had used Al Mukalla as a base as the militants stormed through southern Yemen, capitalizing on the power vacuum caused by the country’s 14-month civil war and seizing territory, weapons and money.
The deadly raid last month, launched from an amphibious assault ship off the Yemeni coast, was the first known American-led ground mission in Yemen since December 2014, when members of SEAL Team 6 stormed a village in southern Yemen in an effort to free an American photojournalist held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the raid ended with the kidnappers killing the journalist and a South African held with him.
The United States conducted 38 drone strikes in Yemen last year, up from 23 in 2014, and has already carried out five strikes so far this year, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
In response to the raid, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen urged followers last weekend to attack the United States and its allies in the country.
Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of Qaeda offshoot, likened his fighters to extremists battling American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a speech translated by SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activities and messaging.
Specialists in Yemeni culture and politics have cautioned that Al Qaeda would seize on the raid to whip up anti-American feelings and attract more followers.
“The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report released last Thursday, “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 New York News)