What went wrong in the deadly raid on al-Qaida in Yemen?

President Donald Trump authorized a raid in Yemen over the weekend with the goal of targeting an al-Qaida stronghold. Details of the planning and execution have come under scrutiny; a Navy SEAL died, a transport aircraft had to be destroyed and civilians were likely killed. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with David Sanger of The New York Times and Richard Atwood, director of International Crisis Group.

Read the Full Transcript


    President Trump has made clear that he will aggressively target terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaida.

    On Sunday in Yemen, U.S. special forces assaulted an al-Qaida compound. It was the first such raid authorized by the new president. But details of the planning and the execution of the raid have come under scrutiny this week.

    Hari Sreenivasan has that story.


    In the early morning hours on Sunday, members of the elite SEAL Team Six approached a village in the Yakla region of Yemen's Bayda province, their target, an al-Qaida stronghold known to U.S. intelligence since the Obama administration.

    A firefight ensued, and the commandos had to call in air support from fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships. A Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens, was killed in the battle and a transport aircraft suffered a hard landing and had to be destroyed.

    The U.S. military acknowledged last night that it had also likely killed civilian noncombatants during the fight.

    White House spokesman Sean Spicer spoke of the mission today:

  • SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary:

    It's hard to ever call something a complete success when you have a loss of life or people injured.

    But I think when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life here in America and against our people and our institutions and probably throughout the world in terms of what some of these individuals could have done, I think it is a successful operation by all standards.


    For more on the raid and the strength of the al-Qaida branch there, I'm joined by David Sanger of The New York Times and Richard Atwood of the International Crisis Group, which released a report today on the strength and capabilities of al-Qaida in Yemen.

    David, I want to ask you first, most presidents say this is the toughest decision that they have, to send a member of the armed forces into harm's way. What was that decision-making process like this time?

  • DAVID SANGER, The New York Times:

    Well, the process was somewhat unusual, Hari.

    Usually, a president goes down in the Situation Room, is presented with what they call a full package for the attack. There's a legal assessment of the legal authorities under which they're doing these. There's a risk assessment to the commandos who would be doing it. There is a risk assessment of what could happen to civilians who are in the area.

    This particular attack had been set up by the Obama administration. They had debated it, and President Obama decided about 10 days before the end of his term that he couldn't approve it because the Pentagon really wanted to go in under the complete cover of darkness, a moonless night. And the next moonless night wasn't going to be until after he was no longer in office.

    So, they kicked this one over to the new administration. And it looks like President Trump got briefed on it, by and large, at a dinner, not in the Situation Room, not with legal advisers around. His secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, was there. Vice President Pence was there. Stephen Bannon, who has emerged as the newest member of the National Security Council, known really more for his political advice than military, was there.

    So was his new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who is a veteran of many of these.

    But the discussion took place in a dinner situation. And he approved the raid at that dinner.

    And I think one of the questions, given how many things have gone wrong, is, would it have been different if he had been in the Situation Room and perhaps had a different set of briefings?

    The White House insists not. It's hard to call this much of a success yet, because we don't know what the value was of the information they were trying to exploit, which came mostly from computers and cell phones.

    And from everything we have heard, they haven't had a chance to assess that yet.


    Richard Atwood, put this in perspective for us.

    How strong is al-Qaida in Yemen?

  • RICHARD ATWOOD, International Crisis Group:

    We — as you said, we published a report today that looks at the evolution of al-Qaida in Yemen.

    And, obviously, there's a lot of talk about the Islamic State, but, in Yemen, it's really al-Qaida that's done well over the last few years. Really, the civil war — it's been the main beneficiary of the civil war.

    And as fighting has escalated between the two sides, between President Hadi's government and its Saudi-backed international coalition on the one hand against the Houthis and former President Saleh, as fighting has escalated, al-Qaida has really been able to exploit the chaos.

    It's been able to control territory and control the town of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden for some time. It's strengthened its ties to some communities. It has very ties, close ties with some of the other armed groups that are fighting in the anti-Houthi Saleh alliance.

    It's undoubtedly got much richer. It's been able to raid banks in Mukalla. It was embedded in the economy in Mukalla for a long time. And it's much better armed. It's been able to gain guns and weapons that have been passed into other armed groups in which it's in an alliance.

    So I think it's stronger than ever. And, frankly, the longer the war continues in Yemen, the stronger al-Qaida is likely to get.

    I would just — on the operation yesterday, you know, I think I agree with David that it's very difficult to know whether it's a success until we know what information was retrieved.

    On the other hand, I think there's aspects of it that are clearly not a success. There's a lot of tribesmen at the moment in Yemen. And an operation like this is more likely to radicalize them, more likely to push them into the arms of al-Qaida, particularly then if it has a high civilian cost, if it kills women, if it kills children, particularly if U.S. forces are involved.

    It tends to feed anti-Americanism and strengthen those alliances between the tribes in al-Qaida, which is what al-Qaida profits from.


    David, did any of thing from officials or anybody else that you spoke to say that that factored into the Trump administration or President Trump's decision to do this?


    We don't have a lot of view into the decision — discussion that they had at the dinner table.

    But I think Richard raises one of the most important points. Over time, presidents learn that the biggest risk out here is not only the civilian risk and the risk to American forces, but whether — as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, whether you're creating terrorists faster than you're killing them.

    And certainly, if you have a case like this where there appear to have been considerable civilian casualties, that may well be the case, especially because, even if some of those civilians may have taken up arms and fired against the SEALs, in the mythology of what went on, you're going to hear a story of SEALs who dropped out of the sky and suddenly attacked a remote village in Yemen.

    And you can imagine the recruiting capability of that. So, you know, part of what's going on here, Hari, is that you have in the Trump administration a group that believes that the decision-making in these kind of cases has to be shortened, that more of the power has to be devolved down to the Pentagon, the commanders.

    And yet, in the first case that the president approved, things went very badly wrong. And you have to wonder whether or not that is going to have the effect of making them think that they need to slow down and think more about the effects of these and get fuller briefings, or whether they're simply going to say, look, this happens sometimes.


    All right, David Sanger, Richard Atwood, thank you both.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment