The US military conducted predawn strikes in Yemen overnight Thursday against al-Qaeda positions there, marking the first US military campaign in that country since a botched raid a month ago that left a Navy SEAL dead and may have slain as many as 30 civilians.
The strikes were part of what appears to be a ramped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which has been allowed to expand amid Yemen’s ongoing civil war and collapsed state. That is, the US military is not just focused on ISIS anymore and has not stopped despite the ill-fated raid Donald Trump approved just days into his presidency.
Two US defense officials told BuzzFeed News that the strikes were planned months before the Jan. 29 raid and that it did not appear that intelligence gleaned from last month’s raid was part of the overnight strikes. Rather, the strikes were part of a long-planned campaign to go after the terror group, which some defense officials believe is the largest threat to Western allies, having planted operatives across Europe.
The 20 strikes, beginning at 3 a.m. local time and conducted over several hours, targeted AQAP’s “military, equipment, and infrastructure,” according to a Defense Department statement.
The overnight strikes “will degrade the AQAP's ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. Targets of the strikes included militants, equipment, infrastructure, heavy weapons systems, and fighting positions.
The Pentagon did not offer any specifics, however, about the targets or the success of the strikes, or say whether they had been carried out by warplanes, drones, or cruise missiles.
The strikes were spread across three provinces: Abyan, Shabwah, and Bayda, the last being the same place where US Navy SEALs raided a suspected al-Qaeda compound in what the US military has called an intelligence-gathering mission. During the operation, the SEALs came under attack early on, moved forward anyway, and fought a 50-minute battle with local trained fighters, some of whom were women. When the raid was over, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens had been killed, six other troops had been injured, a V-22 Osprey was destroyed, and as many as 30 civilians, including nine children, had been killed.
There was no major intelligence find so far from the raid, two defense officials told BuzzFeed News, but rather information that will help the US understand the group better plan future operations. The administration, however, citing the military, has heralded the raid. According to the president’s speech Tuesday before a joint session of Congress, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis concluded it was “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies."
The raid, the first known such operation approved by Trump, has become a major political issue. While the president celebrated Owens’ widow during Tuesday’s address, he also has distanced himself from the operation, laying the blame with “the generals.” In a Fox & Friends interview that aired earlier Tuesday, the commander in chief notably said, “They lost Ryan,” referring to the military. And it has raised questions about the president’s approval process for major military operations.
US Central Command commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel approved the strike campaign, CENTCOM officials said, and coordinated with Yemen President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Pentagon said.