One American service member has been lost and four more injured in the first boots-on-the-ground raid of the Trump administration, against al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen on Saturday.
The raid took place in Bayda Province, where Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has thrived and grown its operations as the civil war in Yemen has raged since 2015. AQAP was deemed the most serious threat to the U.S before the rise of ISIS, responsible for sending underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound plane. U.S air strikes just over a week ago killed 5 militants.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our elite service members,” said U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel. “The sacrifices are very profound in our fight against terrorists who threaten innocent peoples across the globe.”
The raid marks President Donald Trump’s first known order to send troops into harm’s way, and the first combat casualties of his presidency, as controversy rages over a temporary ban on refugees and citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
But a U.S. official tells The Daily Beast that planning for this raid started under the Obama administration, including the use of troops on the ground to gather sensitive intelligence known to be at the scene. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information publicly.
“This was a deliberate raid planned well in advance,” the official said. “It was not top-down driven—percolated from the operators the ground,” who alerted Central Command officials that the target needed to be hit.
“The sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces, and the families they leave behind, are the backbone of the liberty we hold so dear as Americans, united in our pursuit of a safer nation and a freer world,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House on Sunday afternoon. “My deepest thoughts and humblest prayers are with the family of this fallen service member.”
A Central Command statement said an estimated 14 AQAP members had been killed. According to an al Qaeda official, as reported by the AP, 30 people died in the raid. The U.S. official said they are still assessing that number, but had surveillance on the scene 24 hours before the raid and throughout, and did not spot civilians in the area nor see the number of casualties now being reported. The AP reported that al Qaeda claimed women and children were among the dead. One of the children reported to be among the dead was Nora, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric killed by the U.S., according to the girl's grandfather.
“We had eyes on for a long time. I’d be surprised if there were any civilian casualties,” the official said. Al Qaeda often inflates casualty reports, knowing that the U.S. is slower to produce a counter-message especially when it involves raids in a remote location.
Three of the U.S. service members were wounded while taking the target, while another was injured when an aircraft was damaged while landing.
“We had a KIA and lost an airplane, so it’s hard to say it was successful but did get some of what was expected at the scene,” the official said, referring to the hard landing of a V-22 Osprey aircraft at the scene, damaging it so badly that it had to be left behind and destroyed.
No detainees were taken from the scene, the official said. “That wasn't the goal. The overall goal was all along site exploitation,” meaning the gathering of computers, phones, documents and whatever else is found at a scene to mine them for intelligence to drive future raids.
The Central Command statement added that the raid led to “the capture of information that will likely provide insight into the planning of future terror plots,” adding that “This is one in a series of aggressive moves against terrorist planners in Yemen and worldwide,” to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda logistics, recruiting and financing efforts.
The name of the service member killed in action is being withheld until their loved ones can be notified.
Special operations in Yemen have traditionally belonged to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka SEAL Team Six. The last widely reported U.S. raid in Yemen was in 2014, an attempt to rescue American hostage Luke Somers and South African Pierre Korkie. Al Qaeda killed the hostages before the raiders could reach them.