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U.S. service member killed in Yemen raid marks first combat death of Trump administration

Special Operations forces. (U.S. Army)

A U.S. Special Operations service member died of injuries suffered during a weekend raid against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, the military said Sunday.

Three other American troops, members of a Navy SEAL unit, were wounded in the operation on Saturday against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The militant organization has remained a potent threat amid an extended civil war in Yemen.

The incident marks the first time a member of the U.S. military has died in combat since President Trump took office a little more than a week ago. The ground operation, which had been planned for months, was authorized by Trump, according to U.S. officials familiar with the mission. Trump has pledged to wage a more aggressive campaign against terrorist groups.

In a statement released by the White House, Trump called the raid “successful” and said it resulted in the capture of intelligence that would “assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world.”

“Americans are saddened this morning with news that a life of a heroic service member has been taken in our fight against the evil of radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said in the statement.

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an incident whose details have not been made public, said the slain service member was killed in a firefight with militants. According to a statement from U.S. Central Command, 14 militants were killed during the operation.

The raid, which officials said took place in a remote desert area of Yemen’s Shabwa governorate, aimed to obtain intelligence information, including computer material, that was thought to be linked to planning for external attacks. The official could not confirm whether U.S. allies had participated in the raid. In recent months, U.S. Special Operations forces have partnered with troops from the United Arab Emirates to help target al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.

The assault, a Yemeni official said, killed 35 to 40 people in the village, though other figures in local media suggested a lower death toll. U.S. troops, the official said, descended from helicopters, as militants had gathered for a late-night session of chewing qat, the leafy narcotic used by most Yemeni males, especially at social and tribal gatherings. A lengthy battle followed, as the militants opened fire on the U.S. troops. Many homes were destroyed, said the official.

“The raid was intense, and wiped out most areas of the village,” said the security official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. “It took place from night until dawn.”

Among this killed was an AQAP leader named Abdulra’oof Aldahab and two of his relatives. In total, 13 militants were killed, said the official. The operation also killed 15 women and children, said the official, including the 8-year-old daughter of the late radical-Yemeni American cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike.

U.S. officials, after initially indicating that they could not confirm reports of civilian casualties, said they were now assessing the claims. U.S. helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft provided cover for the raid force, dropping an unknown amount of munitions in support of the operation.

According to a report from the SITE Intelligence Group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula denied that any militants were killed, but confirmed the death of Awlaki’s daughter

The group said that the operation took place in al-Bayda governorate, which borders Shabwa, according to SITE; the Yemeni official also said it took place in al-Bayda. Last week, U.S. drone strikes hit militants in al-Bayda, killing five over the course of three days, according to the Pentagon. The militant group also reported it had shot down an American attack helicopter.

U.S. officials said that an Osprey, a tilt-rotor military aircraft, went down in a “crash landing” at a staging area near the site of the operation but said the mishap was not believed to have been caused by militant fire. The disabled Osprey was then intentionally destroyed. Two service members were injured in that landing. The Osprey had been sent to recover the forces wounded in the operation.

U.S. Special Operations forces have maintained a small footprint in Yemen to focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been one of the most active branches of al-Qaeda and has been involved in plots to strike the West.

The last time U.S. forces staged a raid on this scale was in December 2014, a few months before the country descended into civil war. But even before the conflict began, the militants had seized large swaths of southern Yemen, taking advantage of the political turbulence after the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 toppled long-time Yemeni autocrat, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh and Washington had a wary counterterrorism relationship with Saleh allowing U.S. forces to target al-Qaeda in exchange for economic and military aid. Today, U.S. involvement in Yemen has been dramatically scaled back; the core of U.S. operations are centered around drone strikes that have killed dozens of militants, but have been unable to defeat the group.

Both al-Qaeda, and an emerging Islamic State affiliate, continue to stage numerous suicide bombings targeting Yemeni government soldiers and officials in the southern port city of Aden and other areas.

This piece has been updated to reflected new information. 

Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Cairo and Ali Al-Mujahed contributed from Sanaa, Yemen.