Five civilians including a child were killed and another five were wounded in the latest U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen, according to eyewitness accounts gathered by The Intercept.
The raid by U.S. commandos in the hamlet of al Adhlan, in the Yemeni province of Mareb on May 23, also destroyed at least four homes. Navy SEALs, with air support from more than half a dozen attack helicopters and aircraft, were locked in a firefight with Yemeni tribesmen for over an hour, according to local residents.
Details from five eyewitnesses in the village conflict with statements made by the Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command, which have not acknowledged that civilians were harmed. Official military reports claimed seven militants from the Yemen-based Al Qaeda branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were killed “through a combination of small arms fire and precision airstrikes.” Two commandos were also reportedly lightly wounded in the gunfight. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters on May 23 there were “no credible indications of civilian casualties.”
Yet village residents gave a list of 10 names of civilians killed and wounded during the raid. Fifteen-year-old Abdullah Saeed Salem al Adhal was shot dead as he fled from his home with women and children. Another child, 12-year-old Othman Mohammed Saleh al Adhal, was injured but survived.
An additional seven men who were guests in one house in the village were also killed, according to a senior figure in al Adhlan whose name is being withheld for fear of reprisals from AQAP. He was not able to identify the guests but they appear to account for the seven Al Qaeda militants Central Command claimed were killed.
College student Murad al Adhal, 22, the elder brother of 15-year-old Abudullah who was shot and killed, described how he woke to the sound of gunfire around 1:30 a.m. as the SEALs took control of buildings on the mountainside overlooking the village.
“I walked out of my house and I saw the nearby hills were filled with the American soldiers,” he said. When Apache helicopter gunships began firing into buildings, women and children started running out of their homes. “My little brother Abdullah ran for his life with the other women and children. They killed him as he was running.” Murad was shot in the leg.
Residents in al Adhlan described to The Intercept how commandos also shot dead unarmed Nasser Ali Mahdi al Adhal, who was at least 70 years-old. An account by Reprieve, a London-based human rights group, said Nasser was partially blind. The elderly man was killed while attempting to greet the Navy SEALs, after apparently mistaking them for visitors, according to Reprieve.
Local residents estimated some 40 to 60 commandos stormed the village with the support of eight or nine attack helicopters and other aircraft that repeatedly strafed the villagers’ homes. Dozens of animals — livestock belonging to the villagers — were also killed in the barrage of gunfire and airstrikes.
The Intercept collected these accounts through phone interviews with residents and activists who visited the hospital where the wounded were taken. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on The Intercept’s findings and civilian casualties in the raid.
The operation in al Adhlan, a hamlet in the village of al Khathlah in the district of al Jubah in Mareb, is the second U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen acknowledged by the military since Donald Trump took office. The first, on January 29 in al Ghayil, about 40 miles from al Adhlan, left a Navy SEAL dead along with at least 10 children under the age of 13 who were amongst 26 villagers killed in addition to eight apparent Al Qaeda members. Trump billed the operation as “highly successful.” Another raid by Navy SEALs in March on Yemen’s southern coast was aborted at the last minute. There have also been more than 80 drone, air, and sea-launched strikes on Yemen since Trump took office, a significant escalation of a campaign that had tapered off at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.
“Al Adhlan are not al Qaeda”
The aim of the al Adhlan raid was to gather electronic equipment such as cell phones and laptops in order to gain “insight into AQAP’s disposition, capabilities and intentions,” according to Central Command’s statement. This was also the supposed intention of the January mission, although it later emerged that the actual target of the first raid was AQAP leader Qassem al Raymi. None of the villagers in al Adhlan spoken to by The Intercept were aware of any materials or people taken by commandos on May 23.
The accounts given by al Adhlan residents throw into question the veracity of U.S. official accounts. The eyewitness testimony also raises serious questions about intelligence gathering methods and the ability of decision-makers to determine who is and who is not an Al Qaeda militant amidst Yemen’s multifaceted conflict where loyalties are fluid and pragmatically based.
The senior figure from the village described a long-running confrontation over the issue of locals providing guest-houses for Al Qaeda militants. A tribal dispute began in 2015 after a drone strike in the area, when the senior figure confronted other tribal leaders who were reluctant to ban Al Qaeda members from the area. A recent U.S. drone strike, on April 30, had revived the issue.
The senior villager said that in that attack two brothers were killed who were not Al Qaeda but had been living alongside them. The pair of brothers were also the brothers of Murad al Adhal, who survived the May 23 raid with a gunshot wound. Murad narrowly escaped being killed along with his siblings in the drone strike after getting out of the targeted Toyota Hillux moments before it was hit. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, detailed a strike on April 30 in Mareb, which killed four, possibly five, men in a car. Central Command claimed all of the occupants were Al Qaeda militants.)
The April drone attack spurred the senior figure to action.
“I just needed more time to save my own people from this. There was a collective effort to kick out Al Qaeda,” he said. He expressed his anger that rather than being offered support to oust the militants his fellow tribesmen and civilians have instead been killed.
AQAP released a statement in response to the raid through its media channels on May 26, praising the local tribesmen who they said died as “heroes” while denying there was an Al Qaeda camp in the village. The country’s civil war has assisted the militants in one of their main objectives of creating a more seamless existence with local tribal groups.
But the reaction from the villagers after the raid was one of anger toward all sides: Al Qaeda, the U.S. government, the Yemeni government, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Local residents say Emerati forces were involved in the raid alongside U.S. forces, which was also the case in the January operation in al Ghayil. On May 26 al Adhlan tribesman gathered to protest the Navy SEAL mission under the banner “al Adhlan are not Al Qaeda.”
One of those killed in the May 23 raid, Al Khader Saleh Salem al Adhal, was a soldier in the Yemeni army currently fighting on the U.S.-supported side in the country’s complex civil war. Yemen’s conflict pits military units loyal to former president and previous U.S. ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels, against a local Yemeni resistance and anti-Houthi military units backed by a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of regional nations. The coalition is in turn aided by the United States, which has been providing weapons and crucial logistical support to the Saudi Kingdom and its allies in their fight against the Houthi-Saleh forces since March 2015. The Saudis, who view the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, have been the main financial backer and weapons supplier to the military and local tribes fighting in Mareb, including in al Adhlan.
During his visit to Riyadh earlier this month Trump announced a new arms deal, with Saudi Arabia agreeing to buy at least $110 billion of U.S. weapons and equipment. The announcement came despite concerns raised by lawmakers and human rights groups over evidence of apparent war crimes and the high proportion of civilian casualties in the Saudi-led air war, as well as the worsening humanitarian crisis caused by the war. On May 25 U.S. Senators introduced a resolution to block part of the sale.
Yemenis are also experiencing the world’s worst hunger crisis, with seven million people facing the possibility of famine as a direct result of the conflict, in no small part due to restrictions on imports imposed by the Saudi-led coalition that have impacted essential food supplies. Alongside severe food shortages, a rapidly escalating Cholera outbreak has killed more than 400 people this month.
Shuaib Almosawa contributed reporting to this article.