Navy SEALs attempted to conduct another raid inside Yemen earlier this month but aborted the mission at the last minute, according to a senior U.S. military official.
Members of SEAL Team 6 deployed to Yemen in early March for a ground assault targeting suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group U.S. officials view as the most dangerous branch of the terrorist organization. The aborted mission followed a botched January 29 raid in the village of al Ghayil, in al Bayda province. That raid left a Navy SEAL dead and two others seriously injured, and killed more than two dozen Yemeni civilians, including at least 16 women and children. The leader of AQAP, Qassim al Rimi, released a statement mocking Donald Trump and stating that 14 men died in the assault.
General Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services committee last week, “We lost a lot in this operation. We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties, lost an expensive aircraft.”
Votel told Senators that a “determination based on our best information available is that we did cause casualties, somewhere between four and 12 casualties that we accept, I accept responsibility for.”
On March 9, The Intercept published an extensive report from al Ghayil based on the accounts of Yemeni villagers who witnessed the January 29 raid. Villagers recounted helicopter gunship fire that appeared to target women and children as they fled their homes. According to a current U.S. special operations adviser, the January raid was an attempt to kill or capture al Rimi.
After SEAL Team 6 aborted the March mission, the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which oversees the SEAL unit, chose to target suspected AQAP personnel and facilities with drone strikes, according to the U.S. military official, who requested anonymity to discuss classified information. It could not be learned why SEAL Team 6 aborted the mission. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the aborted raid.
The U.S. military conducted more than 30 airstrikes against AQAP targets in three Yemeni provinces over two days in early March. A Pentagon spokesperson described the strikes as targeting “AQAP militants, equipment and infrastructure.”
On March 2, Yemeni media reported that U.S. forces were on the ground as the U.S. conducted airstrikes in the southern portion of the country.
Photos of boot prints — of the same type of boots often worn by members of SEAL Team 6 — circulated online purporting to be evidence that U.S. forces had returned to Yemen.
Images circulating today of SOF boot prints in Yemen may seem trivial, but just show how easy it is to be compromised in these situations. pic.twitter.com/zd0E2F07ua
— Thomas Gibbons-Neff (@Tmgneff) March 3, 2017
The strikes and presence of SEAL Team 6 on the ground marks a significant increase in U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen. President Donald Trump has reportedly declared that parts of the country are now areas of “active hostility,” giving military commanders more authority to conduct counterterrorism operations such as ground assaults and airstrikes by conventional aircraft as well as drones.
SEAL Team 6 long maintained a clandestine presence in Yemen, working with CIA and the Yemeni government to track al Qaeda, until Washington withdrew all military and diplomatic personnel in 2015, when a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels and their allies. Ten thousand people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
After the removal of U.S. personnel, special operations commanders, including from SEAL Team 6, bristled at what they viewed as overly strict limitations by the Obama White House for action against AQAP inside Yemen.