On the night of January 29th, all hell broke loose in the remote Yemeni village of al-Ghayil. According to local reporting, a group of around 30 thirty Navy SEALs stormed the eastern hillside of the village while attack helicopters swooped overhead and projectile bombardments destroyed homes below. The raid, aimed at gathering intelligence and targeting Yemeni operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), killed suspected terrorists and innocent civilians alike.
A few day later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer commended the U.S. strike against Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, calling it a “very, very well thought out and executed effort.” However, many government officials did not share the Press Secretary’s enthusiasm. Senator John McCain went so far as to call the Yemen operation a failure. As new details continue to surface, it appears as if the strike may not have gone as planned.
Among the first victims of the firefight was Chief Petty Officer Owen Williams, a decorated soldier from Navy SEAL Team Six. The covert U.S. strike went on to kill as many as forty Yemenis, including an estimated fourteen AQAP members as well as the eight-year-old daughter of former AQAP senior operative and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. The U.S. Central Command released a statement with the conclusion that “civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of the firefight,” adding that “casualties may include children.”
The exact number of civilian casualties remains unclear, but some sources claim the al-Ghayil operation took the lives of over twenty-nine local civilians. In addition to generating a high death toll, Navy SEAL Team Six was forced to intentionally destroy a $75 million MV 22 Osprey aircraft that suffered engine failure. The Trump administration has faced considerable pressure to investigate the attack in Yemen, but the President himself has opposed any investigation, arguing it would be an affront to the legacy of Officer Williams. In response to President Trump’s rebuke, Williams’ father chastised the administration directly and demanded that government officials not “hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation.”
This raid comes at a particularly perilous juncture in Yemen’s civil war. Beginning in 2015, Shia rebels—known as Houthis—revolted against the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Soon thereafter, the Houthi rebels united with the allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. AQAP quickly capitalized on Yemen’s political instability and began gaining momentum as an ideological and military power, occupying large swathes of coastal land.
Over the past year, the Yemeni civil war has devolved into a multilayered sectarian conflict between Shia Houthis, the radical Sunni group AQAP and the Saudi-backed Hadi government.
The conflict in Yemen has also become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the onset of the civil war, the Saudi kingdom has spearheaded a military campaign that laid waste to Houthi-controlled territory due to fear of growing Shia influence in Yemen. Claims that Iran finances the Houthis have fueled this fear, but Iran’s support for the Shia rebel group appears to be purely rhetorical.
Under the Obama administration, the United States supported Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen by providing precision guided weapons to the kingdom. But in October 2016, President Barack Obama suddenly suspended arms deals to Saudi Arabia to prevent civilian casualties after the Gulf nation bombed a funeral in Sana’a, Yemen (which killed more than 140 mourners and wounded 600 more).
The new administration quickly reversed this policy. Recently, the State Department approved the resumption of weapons deals to Saudi Arabia. Despite the kingdom’s clear violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen, President Trump has sought to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and adopt a more interventionist role in the Yemeni conflict.
The recent raid in al-Ghayil may indicate that the Trump-led American government will take on a more aggressive approach in Yemen than the previous administration. However, the U.S. strike in al-Ghayil brings into question the primary objectives of American foreign policy in Yemen.
On the campaign trail, President Trump made clear his intention to steer away from unnecessary foreign intervention, demanding that the United States “stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, [and] that we shouldn’t be involved with.” At the same time, he has also reiterated the need to extinguish radical Islamic terrorism and to counter the rising power of Iran in the region.
The Yemeni civil war thus presents a conundrum for U.S. government and security officials. Strikes like the al-Ghayil raid may stem the growth of AQAP in Yemen, but they also yield small benefits with huge liabilities attached, such as high death tolls and damage to costly weaponry. The al-Ghayil raid marked the first time American military personnel put boots on the ground during the Yemeni civil war. If the United States continues to attempt similar missions against AQAP and other radical organizations in Yemen, it will put U.S. troops and innocent Yemeni at greater risk.
For all the costs it threatens to incur, increased American involvement in Yemen’s civil war may only prolong the violence. Military operations that kill civilians and raze homes—such as the al-Ghayil raid—help to empower AQAP’s recruitment ability and stoke the flames of anti-American rhetoric used by radical groups.
In his first nationally televised speech to Congress on February 28th, President Trump alleged that al-Ghayil strike successfully gathered vital intelligence from the AQAP compound. After briefly discussing the mission, Trump acknowledged to listeners the presence of Carryn Owens, widow of the fallen U.S Navy SEAL William Owens. As cameras showed tears flowing down Owens’s face, the entire audience stood up, applauding in recognition of her family’s service and sacrifice.
But no such audience existed for the dozens of civilians—men, women and children alike—who died at the hands of the U.S. strike in al-Ghayil. No cameras were present to record the tears of victimized families. No president expressed condolences for the enduring grief and pain of those Yemeni citizens.
The Yemeni people now have reason to fear the United States. By abandoning a policy that prioritized civilian lives, the Trump administration walks the path of virulent interventionism where all sides stand to lose. Future actions, not words, will reveal if President Trump’s foreign policy agenda facilitates or compromises Yemen’s long road to peace.