BEIRUT – It was past midnight on a moonless night in central Yemen, and Ahmad Jawfi was preparing to go to sleep when he heard the dull buzz of drones overhead. Drones were nothing new, so he and others paid little attention.
But soon, a military operation unfolded that left 14 Al-Qaida fighters dead and killed at least 11 women and children and one U.S. commando. The operation Jan. 29 on the village of Yakla by SEAL Team 6 was to showcase the Trump administration’s decisiveness in the fight against Al-Qaida.
The attack, the first Special Operations raid authorized by President Donald Trump, targeted the house of a suspected leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) named Abdel Raouf Dhahab. Jawfi, a tribal leader, was visiting the Dhahab household as part of a tribal mediation.
On Jan. 28, hours before U.S. and Emirati special operations commandos slipped into Yakla early the next morning, “We heard shooting from three sides of where we were,” Jawfi said. He ran into the house, thinking it was another drone attack.
“But then we saw American soldiers everywhere.”
It was the start of a firefight that lasted almost an hour, with the SEALs attacking with small arms and grenades before they called in AV-8B Harrier attack jets and helicopter gunships to help repel counterattacks, according to U.S. officials.
Another survivor of the raid, Saleh Mohsen Amery, said his house was attacked and his daughter killed. Her 4-year-old son survived.
“They attacked the mosque, school, medical unit and a prison in the area,” he said. “Anybody leaving the house was hit and killed … and people in here have nothing but Kalashnikovs,” or AK-47s, to defend themselves.
After the fighting stopped, Amery said, people were too terrified to immediately hospitalize any of the wounded.
“We feared the planes would attack again,” he said. “Most people were taken to the hospital at 6 in the morning.”
The raid killed U.S. Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, 36.
Also among the dead was Nawar al-Awlaki, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic Yemeni American cleric who emerged as an AQAP spokesman and spiritual leader before he was killed six years ago in a CIA drone strike.
Her uncle, Ammar al-Awlaki, posted a picture on his official Facebook page Monday of a smiling Nawar wearing a red skirt and a red ribbon in her hair. He claimed that she had been shot several times, once in the neck, and that she bled for two hours before she died.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that local reports of female civilian casualties should be taken with “a grain of salt,” but by Wednesday, U.S. Central Command said there were noncombatants, including children, among the casualties.
The civilian casualties apparently occurred when aerial gunfire was brought in to fight “against a determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions,” Central Command said.
Three other commandos were wounded but are expected to survive their injuries, officials said. An MV-22 Osprey aircraft was damaged after making what the Pentagon called “a hard landing.” To prevent it from falling into enemy hands, the $70 million aircraft was destroyed.
U.S. intelligence agencies consider AQAP one of Al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoots. The group attempted to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner over Detroit in 2009 and claimed responsibility for the mass shooting that killed 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.
The Pentagon signed off on the Yemen operation Dec. 19, and other agencies gave their approval in the ensuing weeks.
Former Obama administration officials said Barack Obama didn’t wish to authorize the operation because it was scheduled to take place after he left office — on Jan. 28, the next moonless night in Yemen.
On Jan. 24, new Defense Secretary James Mattis conveyed his support for the operation and forwarded it to the White House. Trump approved it the next day.
As for Abdel Raouf Dhahab, the target of the operation, he was among those killed. But Ahmad Salmani of Yakla said, “Dhahab is not AQAP, and everyone knows that he is a tribal sheikh and has nothing to do with AQAP. Because of this, now everyone … is willing to risk his life to kill a U.S. soldier.”