Civilians 'Definitely' Killed in SEAL Operation in Yemen
Almost as intense as the planning that went into last weekend's Navy SEAL operation in Yemen to seize valuable intel on al-Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate was the effort to assess whether any civilians – including children – were killed in the brutal firefight that left one American dead and several wounded.
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said yesterday that "civilian non-combatants likely were killed," during the SEAL Team Six raid on an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen's remote mountains.
But a counterterrorism official familiar with the operation's details and after-action assessments told ABC News, "There definitely were civilian casualties."
Among them, according to a statement by AQAP just hours after the shooting had stopped, was an 8-year old girl whose father was the Yemeni-American AQAP external operations leader and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. Presumably born in Yemen, she likely was considered a "U.S. person" but not a U.S. citizen under the law since her father's American citizenship was never revoked.
The elder Awlaki once led one of the largest mosques in the U.S., a few miles outside of Washington in Virginia's suburbs, before joining AQAP and helping the group become the No. 1 terror threat to his former homeland.
He was killed in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, followed weeks later by what the Obama administration later said was the accidental killing in an airstrike of Awlaki's 16-year old American son, Abdulrahman.
American officials have not confirmed that Awlaki's daughter was among those killed in the intense firefight on Saturday, a moonless night in which the SEALs apparently lost the element of surprise, ABC News has reported. Photos of a bloodied young girl and a baby accompanied the AQAP statement distributed through the encrypted app Telegram.
The intense analysis of possible civilian casualties in the Yemen strike by military experts has been drawn from a mix of intelligence streams including overhead video surveillance and communications intercepts following the gunfight on the ground between AQAP operatives and the SEALs, who were dropped off by Marine Ospreys and walked in several miles to the objective, several houses in a remote mountain range, officials said.
Al-Qaeda fighters including women opened fire as soon as they approached and from every direction, CENTCOM has said.
"They had them surrounded 360 degrees. When that happens, all bets are off," said one counterterrorism official briefed on the operation.
Airstrikes were called in and the SEALs fought back.
Despite suffering the loss of an experienced SEAL operator, Ryan Owens, and an MV-22 Osprey that experienced a hard landing away from the objective, the team killed all the adversaries and recovered computers, phones and documents with intelligence value they had sought, which are now being studied by analysts, said two officials who bristled at media criticism of the operation's success as touted by President Trump.
"In a successful raid against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) headquarters, brave U.S. forces were instrumental in killing an estimated 14 AQAP members and capturing important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world," Trump said in a statement on Monday.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also characterized the operation in positive terms, saying, "It's hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life or people injured. But ... it is a successful operation by all standards."
At the Pentagon, Capt. Jeff Davis was more specific in defining what the made the mission successful in the administration's eyes, saying on Thursday: “I can confirm for you that based on initial indications valuable and actionable intelligence was taken in this operation."
A veteran Naval Special Warfare senior officer who has deployed in combat with SEAL teams in recent years said the loss of an experienced operator, Ryan Owens, "sucks," but the intelligence captured by the team was clearly judged to be worth huge risks to gain invaluable information to protect the U.S. and its interests.
"These guys have a different gut-check. You're not bullet-proof. You've got to accomplish the objective, otherwise everything is for naught," the recently retired senior officer said. "Risk is inherent to success."
In Dam Neck, Virginia, Owens' death stunned his comrades in arms, as the commander of the covert Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known as SEAL Team Six, personally informed the fallen operator's wife and children of his loss while fighting to protect the U.S. homeland.
On Wednesday, Trump and his daughter travelled to Dover Air Force base to pay their respects to the fallen operator as his remains were returned home to the U.S.
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