CAIRO — A U.S. commando raid in Yemen that set off a fierce firefight revealed the growing strength of an al-Qaeda affiliate that has targeted both the United States and Europe in recent years.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the branch is known, had collected enough intelligence to anticipate the raid last weekend, Yemeni officials and analysts said. The militants also had the firepower to counterattack from their bastion, which was surrounded by land mines and other traps.
By the end of the raid, a Navy SEAL was dead and three other American troops were wounded. Yemeni officials said that as many as 30 civilians, including 10 women and children, were also killed. Among them was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
The Pentagon initially said it could not confirm reports of civilian casualties, but it acknowledged Wednesday that civilians were “likely killed” in the raid, which took place in remote Bayda province.
The raid and civilian casualties have triggered widespread anger across Yemen toward Washington, adding to tensions over President Trump’s travel ban on citizens of Yemen and six other majority-Muslim countries. Yemenis have posted photos on social media of children purportedly killed in the attack.
In the capital, Sanaa, where anti-American slogans are scrawled on billboards and walls across the city, the raid appeared to unify Yemenis, a rare occurrence these days in the fractured country.
“What happened caused more anger and hatred toward America,” said Bassam Mahmoud, 40, a government employee. “America has no right to carry out any military action in our country. This a serious violation for our country’s sovereignty and is totally unacceptable.”
On Thursday, the watchdog group Amnesty International called for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to launch an investigation into the civilian deaths, and, if appropriate, “prosecute those responsible.”
The raid was the first counterterrorism operation greenlighted by Trump, and he hailed it as a success. But regional analysts say it could help AQAP gain sympathy and support from local populations.
“The use of U.S. troops and the high number of civilian casualties . . . are deeply inflammatory,” April Longley Alley, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, wrote on its website this week, “and breed anti-American resentment across the Yemeni political spectrum that works to the advantage of AQAP.”
The militant group, which U.S. officials consider al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, seized large swaths of southern Yemen after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts that toppled longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now, with Yemen gripped by a two-year-old civil war, AQAP has expanded its reach even more, gaining territory and recruits and deepening its influence and networks among local tribes.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen “is stronger than it has ever been,” the International Crisis Group said, adding that the militants are “thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy.”
AQAP was behind some of the most audacious assaults against the West in recent years, including a failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. It also asserted responsibility for the deadly 2015 shootings at the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
Also of concern is an emerging Islamic State affiliate that has staged numerous suicide bombings against Yemeni military and government officials in the south, especially in the port city of Aden.
Together, the groups “emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and civil war that followed,” the report said.
The ill-fated raid was an indicator of how much the political fallout from the Arab revolts has weakened U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. As the nation slid toward civil war, Washington scaled back on counterterrorism training, intelligence-gathering and advising of Yemeni forces. The conflict pits an alliance of northern rebels known as Houthis and Saleh loyalists against forces nominally loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is leading a government in exile. The United States, along with a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia, is seeking to restore Hadi to power.
Today, a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations forces is helping Hadi’s government and regional units combat AQAP and the Islamic State.
U.S. counterterrorism efforts during the Obama administration mostly involved drone strikes targeting the radical groups. Many AQAP leaders and operatives were killed, but the overall strategy did little to neutralize the radical groups.
Analysts say it is unclear what broader strategy the Trump administration will employ, but that it appears he might also heavily rely on drones and special operations.
“Yet drone attacks have shown limited effectiveness and a propensity to backfire politically when they cause high civilian casualties,” Alley said, adding that the strikes have “failed” to stop AQAP’s “rapid growth — in large part because the opportunities provided by the war outstrip its losses.”
AQAP has forged alliances with influential Sunni groups and tribes, often with cash payments. It earns revenue from smuggling goods into Yemen, where an air, sea and land blockade is being enforced by the Saudi-led coalition. In particular, the militants are covertly embedded into local community and within militias battling the Houthis and their allies.
To prevent alienating people, the group has stopped enforcing its rigid Islamic codes in some areas, wrote Michael Horton, a Yemen analyst, in last month’s issue of CTC Sentinel, a magazine published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.
Horton, who described AQAP as “better funded and armed than at any point in its history,” said the group is bolstering its intelligence and counterintelligence cells, while creating a network of informants and sympathizers, even in areas were the group no longer rules.
In Bayda, where the U.S. raid unfolded, AQAP exploited tribal rivalries, “leveraging its access to arms, funds, and the military acumen of some of its ranking members in exchange for safe havens,” according to Horton.
But many of the tribesmen were probably supporting AQAP because of its fight against the Houthis and Saleh loyalists and not because it has targeted the West.
In fact, the United States is providing weapons, intelligence and other support to those fighting the Houthis and Saleh. But even U.S. allies condemned the raid, which left as many as 13 militants dead, including an AQAP leader named Abdulra’oof Aldahab.
“Killing outside the law and killing civilians is a condemned act and supports terrorism,” Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi, the foreign minister in Hadi’s government, said in a recent tweet.
Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.