FIVE CIVILIANS INCLUDING a child were killed and another five were wounded in the latest U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen, according to eyewitness accounts gathered by The Intercept.
The raid by U.S. commandos in the hamlet of al Adhlan, in the Yemeni province of Mareb on May 23, also destroyed at least four homes. Navy SEALs, with air support from more than half a dozen attack helicopters and aircraft, were locked in a firefight with Yemeni tribesmen for over an hour, according to local residents.
Details from five eyewitnesses in the village conflict with statements made by the Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command, which have not acknowledged that civilians were harmed. Official military reports claimed seven militants from the Yemen-based Al Qaeda branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were killed “through a combination of small arms fire and precision airstrikes.” ( A lie since the attack helicopters “strafed the villagers’ homes”) Two commandos were also reportedly lightly wounded in the gunfight. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters on May 23 there were “no credible indications of civilian casualties.” (another lie unless the task force was sent in total darkness without night vision, which means that they knew that women and children had been killed.)
Yet village residents gave a list of 10 names of civilians killed and wounded during the raid. Fifteen-year-old Abdullah Saeed Salem al Adhal was shot dead as he fled from his home with women and children. Another child, 12-year-old Othman Mohammed Saleh al Adhal, was injured but survived.
An additional seven men who were guests in one house in the village were also killed, according to a senior figure in al Adhlan whose name is being withheld for fear of reprisals from AQAP. He was not able to identify the guests but they appear to account for the seven Al Qaeda militants Central Command claimed were killed.
College student Murad al Adhal, 22, the elder brother of 15-year-old Abudullah who was shot and killed, described how he woke to the sound of gunfire around 1:30 a.m. as the SEALs took control of buildings on the mountainside overlooking the village.
“I walked out of my house and I saw the nearby hills were filled with the American soldiers,” he said. When Apache helicopter gunships began firing into buildings, women and children started running out of their homes. “My little brother Abdullah ran for his life with the other women and children. They killed him as he was running.” Murad was shot in the leg.
Residents in al Adhlan described to The Intercept how commandos also shot dead unarmed Nasser Ali Mahdi al Adhal, who was at least 70 years-old. An account by Reprieve, a London-based human rights group, said Nasser was partially blind. The elderly man was killed while attempting to greet the Navy SEALs, after apparently mistaking them for visitors, according to Reprieve.
Local residents estimated some 40 to 60 commandos stormed the village with the support of eight or nine attack helicopters and other aircraft that repeatedly strafed the villagers’ homes. Dozens of animals — livestock belonging to the villagers — were also killed in the barrage of gunfire and airstrikes.
The Intercept collected these accounts through phone interviews with residents and activists who visited the hospital where the wounded were taken. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on The Intercept’s findings and civilian casualties in the raid.
The operation in al Adhlan, a hamlet in the village of al Khathlah in the district of al Jubah in Mareb, is the second U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen acknowledged by the military since Donald Trump took office. The first, on January 29 in al Ghayil, about 40 miles from al Adhlan, left a Navy SEAL dead along with at least 10 children under the age of 13 who were amongst 26 villagers killed in addition to eight apparent Al Qaeda members. Trump billed the operation as “highly successful.” Another raid by Navy SEALs in March on Yemen’s southern coast was aborted at the last minute. There have also been more than 80 drone, air, and sea-launched strikes on Yemen since Trump took office, a significant escalation of a campaign that had tapered off at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.
“Al Adhlan are not al Qaeda”
The aim of the al Adhlan raid was to gather electronic equipment such as cell phones and laptops in order to gain “insight into AQAP’s disposition, capabilities and intentions,” according to Central Command’s statement. (Yet another lie, but who’s counting – certainly not the US, the attack helicopters reduced homes to rubble – try salvaging ‘phones and laptops etc from that in the middle of a moonless night)
This was also the supposed intention of the January mission, although it later emerged that the actual target of the first raid was AQAP leader Qassem al Raymi. None of the villagers in al Adhlan spoken to by The Intercept were aware of any materials or people taken by commandos on May 23.
The accounts given by al Adhlan residents throw into question the veracity of U.S. official accounts. The eyewitness testimony also raises serious questions about intelligence gathering methods and the ability of decision-makers to determine who is and who is not an Al Qaeda militant amidst Yemen’s multifaceted conflict where loyalties are fluid and pragmatically based.
The senior figure from the village described a long-running confrontation over the issue of locals providing guest-houses for Al Qaeda militants. A tribal dispute began in 2015 after a drone strike in the area, when the senior figure confronted other tribal leaders who were reluctant to ban Al Qaeda members from the area. A recent U.S. drone strike, on April 30, had revived the issue.
The senior villager said that in that attack two brothers were killed who were not Al Qaeda but had been living alongside them. The pair of brothers were also the brothers of Murad al Adhal, who survived the May 23 raid with a gunshot wound. Murad narrowly escaped being killed along with his siblings in the drone strike after getting out of the targeted Toyota Hillux moments before it was hit. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, detailed a strike on April 30 in Mareb, which killed four, possibly five, men in a car. Central Command claimed all of the occupants were Al Qaeda militants.)
The April drone attack spurred the senior figure to action.
“I just needed more time to save my own people from this. There was a collective effort to kick out Al Qaeda,” he said. He expressed his anger that rather than being offered support to oust the militants his fellow tribesmen and civilians have instead been killed.
AQAP released a statement in response to the raid through its media channels on May 26, praising the local tribesmen who they said died as “heroes” while denying there was an Al Qaeda camp in the village. The country’s civil war has assisted the militants in one of their main objectives of creating a more seamless existence with local tribal groups.
But the reaction from the villagers after the raid was one of anger toward all sides: Al Qaeda, the U.S. government, the Yemeni government, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Local residents say Emerati forces were involved in the raid alongside U.S. forces, which was also the case in the January operation in al Ghayil. On May 26 al Adhlan tribesman gathered to protest the Navy SEAL mission under the banner “al Adhlan are not Al Qaeda.”
One of those killed in the May 23 raid, Al Khader Saleh Salem al Adhal, was a soldier in the Yemeni army currently fighting on the U.S.-supported side in the country’s complex civil war. Yemen’s conflict pits military units loyal to former president and previous U.S. ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels, against a local Yemeni resistance and anti-Houthi military units backed by a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of regional nations. The coalition is in turn aided by the United States, which has been providing weapons and crucial logistical support to the Saudi Kingdom and its allies in their fight against the Houthi-Saleh forces since March 2015. The Saudis, who view the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, have been the main financial backer and weapons supplier to the military and local tribes fighting in Mareb, including in al Adhlan.
During his visit to Riyadh earlier this month Trump announced a new arms deal, with Saudi Arabia agreeing to buy at least $110 billion of U.S. weapons and equipment. The announcement came despite concerns raised by lawmakers and human rights groups over evidence of apparent war crimes and the high proportion of civilian casualties in the Saudi-led air war, as well as the worsening humanitarian crisis caused by the war. On May 25 U.S. Senators introduced a resolution to block part of the sale.
Yemenis are also experiencing the world’s worst hunger crisis, with seven million people facing the possibility of famine as a direct result of the conflict, in no small part due to restrictions on imports imposed by the Saudi-led coalition that have impacted essential food supplies. Alongside severe food shortages, a rapidly escalating Cholera outbreak has killed more than 400 people this month.
Shuaib Almosawa contributed reporting to this article.
ON JANUARY 29, 5-year-old Sinan al Ameri was asleep with his mother, his aunt, and 12 other children in a one-room stone hut typical of poor rural villages in the highlands of Yemen. A little after 1 a.m., the women and children awoke to the sound of a gunfight erupting a few hundred feet away. Roughly 30 members of Navy SEAL Team 6 were storming the eastern hillside of the remote settlement.
According to residents of the village of al Ghayil, in Yemen’s al Bayda province, the first to die in the assault was 13-year-old Nasser al Dhahab. The house of his uncle, Sheikh Abdulraouf al Dhahab, and the building behind it, the home of 65-year-old Abdallah al Ameri and his son Mohammed al Ameri, 38, appeared to be the targets of the U.S. forces, who called in air support as they were pinned down in a nearly hourlong firefight.
With the SEALs taking heavy fire on the lower slopes, attack helicopters swept over the hillside hamlet above. In what seemed to be blind panic, the gunships bombarded the entire village, striking more than a dozen buildings, razing stone dwellings where families slept, and wiping out more than 120 goats, sheep, and donkeys.
Three projectiles tore through the straw and timber roof of the home where Sinan slept. Cowering in a corner, Sinan’s mother, 30-year-old Fatim Saleh Mohsen, decided to flee the bombardment. Grabbing her 18-month-old son and ushering her terrified children into the narrow outdoor passageway between the tightly packed dwellings, she headed into the open. Over a week later, Sinan’s aunt Nadr al Ameri wept as she stood in the same room and recalled watching her sister run out the door into the darkness.
Nesma al Ameri, an elderly village matriarch who lost four family members in the raid, described how the attack helicopters began firing down on anything that moved. As she recounted the horror of what happened, Sinan tapped her on the arm. “No, no. The bullets were coming from behind,” the 5-year-old insisted, interrupting to demonstrate how he was shot at and his mother gunned down as they ran for their lives. “From here to here,” Sinan said, putting two fingers to the back of his head and drawing an invisible line to illustrate the direction of the bullet exiting her forehead. His mother fell to the ground next to him, still clutching his baby brother in her arms. Sinan kept running.
His mother’s body was found in the early light of dawn, the front of her head split open. The baby was wounded but alive. Sinan’s mother was one of at least six women killed in the raid, the first counterterrorism operation of the Trump administration, which also left 10 children under the age of 13 dead. “She was hit by the plane. The American plane,” explained Sinan. “She’s in heaven now,” he added with a shy smile, seemingly unaware of the enormity of what he had witnessed or, as yet, the impact of his loss. “Dog Trump,” declared Nesma, turning to the other women in the room for agreement. “Yes, the dog Trump,” they agreed.
According to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the al Ghayil raid “was a very, very well thought out and executed effort,” (So the US deliberately murdered women and children?) planning for which began under the Obama administration back in November 2016. Although Ned Price, former National Security Council spokesperson, and Colin Kahl, the national security adviser under Vice President Biden, challenged Spicer’s account, what is agreed upon is that Trump gave the final green light over dinner at the White House on January 25. According to two people with direct knowledge, the White House did not notify the U.S. ambassador to Yemen in advance of the operation.
The Intercept’s reporting from al Ghayil in the aftermath of the raid and the eyewitness accounts provided by residents, as well as information from current and former military officials, challenge many of the Trump administration’s key claims about the “highly successful” operation, from the description of an assault on a fortified compound — there are no compounds or walled-off houses in the village — to the “large amounts of vital intelligence” the president said were collected. (Yet another lie, not that one more in a list of lies really changes anything. No fortified compounds of any description, no amount at all, of any kind of intelligence let alone vital)
According to a current U.S. special operations adviser and a former senior special operations officer, it was not intelligence the Pentagon was after but a key member of al Qaeda. The raid was launched in an effort to capture or kill Qassim al Rimi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to the special operations adviser, who asked to remain anonymous because details behind the raid are classified.
Villagers interviewed by The Intercept rejected claims that al Rimi was present in al Ghayil, although one resident described seeing an unfamiliar black SUV arriving in the village hours before the raid. Six days after the operation, AQAP media channels released an audio statement from al Rimi, who mocked President Trump and the raid. The White House and the military have denied that the AQAP leader was the target of the mission, insisting the SEALs were sent in to capture electronic devices and material to be used for intelligence gathering. A spokesperson for CENTCOM told The Intercept the military has not yet determined whether al Rimi was in al Ghayil when the SEALs arrived.
Although some details about the mission remain unclear, the account that has emerged suggests the Trump White House is breaking with Obama administration policies that were intended to limit civilian casualties. The change — if permanent — would increase the likelihood of civilian deaths in so-called capture or kill missions like the January 29 raid.
THE JANUARY MISSION was the fourth time U.S. forces have been involved in ground operations in Yemen. While none of those prior raids could be deemed successful — two were failed attempts to free an American hostage, photojournalist Luke Somers — they did not leave the same trail of destruction as the operation in al Ghayil.The village is part of a cluster of settlements known as Yakla in the Qayfa tribal region of Yemen’s al Bayda province. A basic knowledge of the local political environment, combined with a grasp of the obvious challenges posed by the geographical layout of al Ghayil, would have provided substantial forewarning that this latest raid was a highly precarious undertaking. American military planners should have foreseen that their forces would face not only al Qaeda militants, but also heavy armed resistance from residents of al Ghayil and surrounding villages.
This area of al Bayda has been at war for more than 2 1/2 years, and the Qayfa tribe is renowned for its fighting prowess and a long-standing refusal to yield to the state. After the joint forces of Yemen’s northern Houthi rebels and military loyalists of the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized control of the capital, Sana, in September 2014, they swiftly moved southeast into al Bayda. Most of the Qayfa tribe, including the men of Yakla, have been fighting the Houthi-Saleh forces ever since. Saudi Arabia joined the fray in March 2015, leading a coalition of nations in a military intervention and aerial bombing campaign, supported by the U.S., to push back the Houthis, who the Saudis view as an Iranian proxy force. In theory, the residents of al Ghayil are on the same side as the United States in a civil war that has left more than 3 million people displaced and brought the country to the edge of famine.
Al Ghayil, just a few miles from Houthi-Saleh-controlled territory, came under Houthi rocket fire more than once in the early weeks of 2017, leaving the area of Yakla on high alert for attacks and residents in constant fear of losing their homes to a Houthi-Saleh incursion. The closest town, Rada — home to the nearest hospital — had been a no-go area for the population of Yakla since it fell under Houthi-Saleh control in October 2014.
When the U.S. Navy SEALs flew into al Ghayil in the early hours of January 29 — a deliberately chosen moonless night — local armed tribesmen assumed the Houthis had arrived to capture their village. After the firefight started, some of the men who ran to defend their families and homes saw colored lasers emanating from the weapons of their opponents, raising suspicions they might be facing Americans.
Shortly after the firefight erupted, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was shot by a bullet that hit just above his armored chest plate and entered his heart, according to the former senior special operations official briefed on the raid. Owens died shortly after he was hit.
Further confusion set in when the attack helicopters joined the assault. Knowing the Houthi-Saleh forces do not have an air force, residents could only assume it was the Saudi-led coalition attacking them from the air. They were not entirely wrong. Troops from the United Arab Emirates — leading players in the coalition’s two-year fight against the Houthis — also took part in the raid and might have been involved in flying the helicopters that fired on civilians. Dozens of UAE Apache gunships are currently stationed in Emirati-run military bases across Yemen.
The UAE government did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its role in the raid or answer queries regarding any casualties among its personnel.
According to the former senior U.S. special operations official and a current military consultant, both of whom were briefed on the raid, the SEALs discovered by the time they arrived in the village that their operation had been compromised. It is still unclear how those on the ground were tipped off, but a current consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees SEAL Team 6, said the command is investigating whether UAE forces involved in the raid revealed the details of the mission before the SEALs arrived in al Ghayil. (However, local residents, who are used to hearing the buzz of drones in the remote area, said they noticed the unusual presence of helicopters around 9 p.m. the night before the raid, which raised concern.)
Some men in the surrounding villages grabbed their weapons and ran to help defend their neighbors when they heard the sound of a battle unfolding, according to residents. Mohammed Ali al Taysi, from the nearby village of Husun at Tuyus, dashed to his battered SUV, tearing down a dry riverbed in the dark to reach al Ghayil from the north. But just short of the village, a helicopter flew low overhead, pounding warning shots into the ground on either side of his vehicle. Al Taysi jumped out, firing his rifle toward the Apache before retreating into the night. Other armed men closer to the village descended from the mountainside on foot to support the tribesmen of al Ghayil, who already held the advantage of the high ground on the western side of the village. The SEALs had come in from the low ground to the north, approaching the homes of Abdulraouf al Dhahab and Mohammed al Ameri from the eastern slopes below.
According to those present, the firefight quickly escalated around the al Dhahab house, halting the SEALs’ advance. As the U.S. forces fought from the lower ground and more men descended the mountainside to join the shootout, airstrikes obliterated Mohammed al Ameri’s house on the hill above, killing three of his children, ages 7, 5, and 4, and seemingly destroying any possibility of retrieving laptops, hard drives, or other intelligence material from inside without digging through piles of rubble in the dark.
With one Navy SEAL dead and two others seriously wounded, the special operations forces began to withdraw. But before they departed, according to local witnesses, the MV-22 Osprey used to extract the retreating soldiers crash-landed, forcing another aircraft to land to pull out the operators. Airstrikes then deliberately destroyed the abandoned Osprey.
The gunfight had lasted the better part of an hour. It would be another hour or more before the skies fell silent and the sound of helicopters, aircraft, and drones faded. It was in the dawn light that the mass of bodies was revealed, the missing accounted for, and dead children identified. Smoke swirled into the air from the roofs still burning and the carcass of the smoldering Osprey in the distance.