The mission facing the Navy SEALs as they approached a remote desert compound was a formidable one: detain Yemeni tribal leaders collaborating with al-Qaeda and gather intelligence that could plug a critical gap in U.S. understanding of one of the world’s most dangerous militant groups.
Instead, a massive firefight ensued, claiming the life of an American sailor and at least one Yemeni child, and serving as an early lesson for President Trump’s national security team about the perils of overseas ground operations.
The raid Saturday in Yemen’s Bayda governorate, which also included elite forces from the United Arab Emirates, was the first counterterrorism operation approved by Trump, who took office a week earlier. And the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, who would later succumb to his injuries, was the first combat fatality of Trump’s young presidency.
Special operations such as this have always been risky for presidents to approve. Trump and some of his advisers have promised to give the military greater rein in authorizing such missions as part of their desire to wipe out extremist threats. But the president has also said he is leery of getting entangled too deeply in costly operations overseas.
In Saturday’s operation, the SEALs faced difficulties from the start. After the U.S. forces descended on the village of Yaklaa, a heavily guarded al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stronghold surrounded by land mines, militants launched an intense counterattack.
As the pitched gunbattle continued, officials called in Marine Cobra helicopter gunships, backed by Harrier jets, to strike the AQAP fighters, according to U.S. officials familiar with the incident.
An elite Special Operations air regiment was then sent in to pull the team and its casualties out of the fray, banking into the night under heavy fire to link up with a Marine quick-reaction force that had taken off in MV-22 Ospreys from the USS Makin Island floating offshore.
The two units planned to meet in the desert to transfer the wounded SEALs so they could be taken back to the amphibious assault ship for treatment, but one of the Ospreys lost power, hitting the ground hard enough to wound two service members and disable the aircraft.
With the twin-engine transport out of action, a Marine jet dropped a GPS-guided bomb on the disabled $70 million Osprey to ensure that it did not fall into militant hands.
Yemeni officials said the operation killed 15 women and children, 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. American officials said they were unable to immediately confirm the civilian deaths but suggested that most or all of those killed were militants.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said women participated in the gunfight.
According to current and former officials with knowledge of the operation, military officials had proposed it weeks before, under the Obama administration, as part of an attempt to compensate for intelligence losses caused by Yemen’s extended civil conflict.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab nations launching air attacks on Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States has provided some support to those air operations but has distanced itself over allegations of repeated attacks on civilian targets.
After considering the operation for several weeks, Obama officials concluded that the raid would not be possible before the president’s Jan. 20 departure. They began to prepare a detailed assessment of the Pentagon proposal in anticipation of a final decision by Trump’s top advisers, said one former senior U.S. official who, like other current and former officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The operation, the first U.S.-led ground raid in Yemen since 2014, comes as the United States tries to rebuild a counterterrorism mission that has been severely curtailed since 2015. Last year, the United States established a tiny Special Operations presence in coastal Yemen, working alongside Emirati troops to keep tabs on AQAP activities.
The group has been one of the most potent branches of the global militant network and has been involved in multiple plots to attack the West.
“Undoubtedly DOD is focused on steps that make up for the current gaps in our knowledge in Yemen,” the former senior official said.
The operation may also be a sign of things to come. The Pentagon, according to two defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, is drawing up plans to be considered by the White House that, if approved, could delegate decision-making for operations in Yemen to a lower level and accelerate activities against AQAP.
While that would seemingly be indicative of a more aggressive stance by Trump, one official described the raid and the proposal as an outgrowth of earlier Obama-era operations that have pushed al-Qaeda militants from their sanctuaries and provided more opportunities for U.S. strikes.
“We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,” another defense official said.
The same model was applied after an extended U.S. air campaign in Libya that pushed Islamic State militants into desert camps, where they were eventually pursued and destroyed by stealth bombers.
A former senior defense official familiar with prior operations in Yemen said Saturday’s raid and the potential for expanded operations were “overdue.”
“We really struggled with getting the White House comfortable with getting boots on the ground in Yemen,” the former official said. “Since the new administration has come in, the approvals [at the Pentagon] appear to have gone up.”
Already, the Trump administration, in a flurry of executive actions, has shown a penchant for tightly held decision-making that has left out key agency officials.
Luke Hartig, who was a senior official for counterterrorism under President Barack Obama, cautioned that even swift or delegated decision-making on national security matters requires consultation with a range of agencies that could address legal, diplomatic and other questions.
“It’s not about slowing things down — it’s about making sure the complexities are well addressed prior to approval,” said Hartig, who is now a fellow at New America and runs a research group at National Journal.
The Trump White House touted the operation this week as a success. A release by the White House on Sunday said the raid killed 14 militants and captured intelligence that could deter future attacks.
This week, Trump spoke with Owens’s family to offer his condolences.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.