Transcript

Targeting Yemen

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NARRATOR:

Yemen.

NARRATOR:

Journalist Safa Al Ahmad has been covering the devastating war here since it began four years ago. Now she’s come to investigate a different conflict: the escalation of the U.S. fight against Al Qaeda in Yemen. There’s been little reporting from the ground about what the U.S. is doing here. But one operation made headlines two years ago.

NEWS REPORT:

U.S. forces launched a surprise raid in Yemen overnight.

NEWS REPORT:

…targeting an Al Qaeda camp in Southern Yemen on Sunday.

NEWS REPORT:

The predawn raid went wrong almost from the beginning, leaving a Navy SEAL dead.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

…a highly successful raid that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[voice over] I was hearing reports questioning how successful that mission was and I was also hearing about civilian casualties. I wanted to go and see for myself what had happened that night but also what it might reveal…

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[on camera] …about the larger counterterrorism operation that the U.S. were conducting.

NARRATOR:

Yemen has been wracked by a war between armed factions since 2014.

CROWD CHANTING:

[subtitles] Death to America.

Death to Israel.

NARRATOR:

On one side, the Houthis, a group from Northern Yemen with links to Iran. Against them, many tribes and a coalition including Yemeni government troops, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, supported by the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. has been trying to target both ISIS and Al Qaeda here. The Navy SEAL raid in January 2017 was on the village of Yakla on the front line between the tribes and the Houthis.

SAFA AL AHMAD, Correspondent:

Since I heard about the Yakla raid, I’ve been trying for months to get access to the village and I finally got a phone call. I was going to be picked up by somebody from Yakla village and be driven there.

Yakla is a very dangerous place to get to because it sits in the middle of several front lines. You have the Houthis, you have the tribes, and you have the Yemeni government fighting there. You also have elements of Al Qaeda. And so this exposes everyone to the danger of U.S. drone strikes.

On the way, the driver stopped in a clearing where he told me that this is where the American special forces had landed.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] Keep going.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

They had trekked for seven kilometers to the village of Yakla. And so we had retraced their trip to the village.

NARRATOR:

The Navy SEALs attacked an Al Qaeda headquarters here, according to a Pentagon statement. The statement said the troops met resistance, including from numerous female fighters. One American soldier was killed and three others injured. The military said they killed at least 14 Al Qaeda members.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

I wanted to talk to the eyewitnesses that had survived the raid to hear their narrative about what happened.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] I’ll speak the truth. God knows if it will be used against me.

NARRATOR:

Local tribal leader Sheikh AbduliIlah Al Dhahab has been in hiding since the raid and has not been interviewed about what happened until now.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] The operation had absolutely no justification. There were no targets. No Al Qaeda leadership. Nothing.

NARRATOR:

He says his tribe has been fighting the Houthis on the side backed by the United States.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] Just before the raid, there was an attack by the Houthis. From 9:00 to around 11:30 at night.

NARRATOR:

At 2:00 a.m., Abdulillah says his 11-year-old son Ahmed was on their roof and saw armed men approaching. Thinking they were Houthis, the boy shouted out. The sheikh says the commandos then shot Ahmed through the heart, and his family returned fire.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] Then the aircraft came. They started firing rockets. There was heavy fire from the aircraft as well as from their men on the ground. They said the women took fighting positions. Why would they when they don’t even know how to carry a weapon? In our tribe, the men are the ones who fight. And the children? Were they in fighting positions? More children were killed than women.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] Is this from the day of the raid?

SINAN, Villager:

[subtitles] Yes, it’s from that day. The mother of these girls was killed there.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

The people of Yakla told me that at least seven women and 10 children were killed that night. The youngest was a 3-month-old.

MILHA AL AMERI, Villager:

[subtitles] My grandson, Mohammed, ran out of the house. And when he reached that wall, he was shot. Those who stayed inside the house survived. Those who left were killed.

NARRATOR:

The Pentagon acknowledged that civilians, including children, were likely killed in what they called a “ferocious firefight.” But they said the Navy SEALs had obtained valuable intelligence and taken out Al Qaeda leaders, including two of Abdulillah’s brothers. The sheikh denies the brothers had anything to do with Al Qaeda. He says one of them, Abdul Raouf, was a tribal commander working with the Yemeni army, the side backed by the U.S. This was confirmed to FRONTLINE by the Yemeni government.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] That night, Abdul Raouf was paying wages to government soldiers. The very night of the raid

NARRATOR:

The sheikh acknowledges that members of his family have been connected to Al Qaeda.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

The Dhahab family is symbolic of the complexities of Yemeni politics. You have people of his family who did choose to join Al Qaeda. You have members who did not and chose to fight them.

November 2010

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI:

[subtitle] There’s no need to consult anyone about killing Americans.

NARRATOR:

The sheikh’s brother-in-law was Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American Al Qaeda leader who was killed in a drone strike in 2011. Al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter, Nawar, the sheikh’s niece, was killed in the Yakla raid. The family said she was shot in the neck.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

The members of the Dhahab family that I spoke to told me they had paid a really high price just because they were part of the Dhahab family.

NARRATOR:

The villagers say around 30 civilians were killed. Most are buried in this cemetery. Department of Defense investigations later concluded that there were between four and 12 civilian casualties and around 35 enemy combatants killed. They would not comment on the sheikh’s brothers, and told FRONTLINE they maintain “a firm commitment to protecting civilians.”

 

NARRATOR:

The Yakla raid marked the beginning of a dramatic escalation of the U.S.’s ongoing war against Al Qaeda in Yemen. During President Obama’s eight years in office, the U.S. carried out an estimated 154 drone strikes in Yemen. In President Trump’s first two years, around 176 have been reported.

April 2018

ROBERT KAREM, Assistant Defense Secretary for International Security Affairs nominee:

A priority is the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

July 2017

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, Secretary of Defense:

This is a franchised Al Qaeda metastasizing threat.

March 2017

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, Commander, Centcom:

This is the franchise of Al Qaeda that has demonstrated the ability to try to attack our homeland.

NARRATOR:

The roads leading out of Yakla are littered with the wreckage of cars destroyed by drone strikes.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

While I was in Yemen I heard about a drone strike that had just recently happened. It was in the central region of Shabwa. It all started apparently when a boy had joined Al Qaeda.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] I’m sorry for your loss.

NARRATOR:

Ali Salem is the uncle of the boy. He takes Safa to meet him. For his safety, we agreed not to show his face. He says he ran away from home with friends to join Al Qaeda.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] Tell me, how did you join them?

BOY:

They were messaging me and messaging my friends.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] What did they say?

BOY:

[subtitle] They said, “Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you.” So we went, although I didn’t really want to.

Al Qaeda video

NARRATOR:

Al Qaeda in Yemen doesn’t just preach jihad against the United States, but also against the UAE forces, Saudis and the Houthis, all of whom they consider infidels.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[voice over] The situation in Yemen is very complex right now. You have interlocking conflicts of who’s fighting who. The people on the ground have told me that many of these young men who join a-Qaida are joining it for local reasons…

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[on camera] …for local conflicts, and not necessarily because they want to join the global jihad.

NARRATOR:

According to villagers in Shabwa, on January 26th, 2018, the boy’s father and some relatives set out by car to rescue the boy from Al Qaeda. While driving, they came under attack.

BOY:

[subtitle] At 11:30 or 12:00 we heard the strike. There were two missiles.

MAN:

[subtitles] This is hair and remains of flesh, look. And this is the remains of the missile – can you see? – that hit the car. This is the serial number.

NARRATOR:

The family says seven relatives were killed in the strike.

MAN:

[subtitle] This is their flesh.

NARRATOR:

Ali is a soldier in the Yemeni army. He says the boy’s father was a taxi driver and two other uncles who were killed were also in the Yemeni army.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] What is this?

ALI SALEM:

[subtitles] This is the martyr, First Lieutenant Nabil Salem Mohammed Ba’athlan. This is the second one, Ziyad Saleh Mohammed Bin A’lwiyah. They were fighting the Houthis with no relationship to any illegal or terrorist organizations.

NARRATOR:

Ali Salem prepared these papers to clear the names of his relatives. He wants the U.S. to pay compensation for their deaths. He says he is now the sole provider for over 30 family members. We asked the Pentagon about the strike and Ali Salem’s account of the deaths. But they would not comment beyond a statement at the time that a strike had occurred on that day in Shabwa.

In another part of Yemen, Safa travelled to the site of the largest known U.S. special forces ground raid in the country. The Pentagon said at the time that seven terrorists were killed, with no civilian casualties.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[voice over] The raid took place on a tiny little village called Athlan on May 23rd, 2017. The people who lived in the village described an apocalyptic scene.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[on camera] They were so frightened about the amount of U.S. soldiers that were sent. There were the helicopters, the drones.

NARRATOR:

The villagers say Safa is the first foreign journalist to come here since the U.S. raid.

ABU MUJAHID, Villager:

[subtitles] They came on foot when people were sleeping. Some came from the valley. Others from this side. Everywhere. The top of the hill was full of them

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[subtitle] Full of who?

ABU MUJAHID:

[subtitle] Full of Americans.

MUJAHID AL A’ATHAAL:

[subtitles] They came from far, far away. There were so many of them. Each one of them had someone else behind them. There were so many of them. From over there. So many of them.

ABU MOU’ATH:

[subtitle] What happened to you?

MUJAHID AL A’ATHAAL:

[subtitle] America.

ABU MOU’ATH:

[subtitle] America? Didn’t something fall on your back?

ABU MOU’ATH:

[subtitle] Yes, a block of cement from the roof fell on my back.

NARRATOR:

8-year-old Mujahid’s back and hearing were damaged in the raid.

ABU MOU’ATH:

[subtitle] Where’s your uncle?

MUJAHID AL A’ATHAAL:

[subtitles] Al Ghader? In heaven. All of them are.

NARRATOR:

A U.N. investigation later said that 50 U.S. soldiers were involved in the attack, and that in addition to the Al Qaeda casualties, five civilians were killed including an 80-year-old man, Nasser Mahdi.

Dhabia Ahmed was at home that night with her six children.

DHABIA AHMED:

[subtitles] The missiles fell at the front and back of the house. We woke up covered in broken glass and bullet shells. My children and I tried to run away so they wouldn’t capture us. They even had dogs.

NARRATOR:

She says her 15-year-old son Abdullah was a conscript in the Yemeni army. He was killed that night. She shows his gun and says that he was just trying to defend his family and that other men did the same.

In a statement on the incident, the Pentagon said precision airstrikes from an AC-130 gunship were used.

DHABIA AHMED:

[subtitles] My son was killed here, look. He called out to me, “Mom!” “Make peace with God,” I said. His nickname was Shibraeen. I told him, “Shibraeen, my love, make peace with God. Patience, my love.”

NARRATOR:

The villagers say the U.S. soldiers withdrew in a hurry. They show some things the Americans left behind.

ABU MOU’ATH:

[subtitle] Pull! Pull it up, Adnan.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

While filming with the Athlan family, they brought a plastic ladder that they were, were struggling to open and they also had a medical backpack. Within the backpack were several laminated papers. One of the laminated papers had 22 names on it with blood types. I assume that they were the names of the special ops guys that were there on that mission. And it included two dogs.

NARRATOR:

FRONTLINE tracked down some of the names on the list and confirmed they were Navy SEALs. To protect their identities, we’re obscuring the names. The Pentagon wouldn’t comment, saying, “We will not discuss our tactics, techniques and procedures.” Sources with experience in special forces told us even taking a list of full names on such a mission was a grave mistake.

SINAN:

[subtitle] This is the shrapnel we found in my house.

NARRATOR:

Back in Yakla, families say they still don’t understand why the U.S. attacked their village two years ago.

SINAN:

[subtitle] These are from the missiles.

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[voice over] Yemenis I’ve spoke to in Yakla and Athlan and Shabwa, all of them have a common fear – a fear of something that is completely out of their control. The drone strikes, the raids…

SAFA AL AHMAD:

[on camera] …adds to the massive fear and confusion the Yemenis are already feeling in the midst of this very complicated war.

NARRATOR:

Since the Yakla raid, there have been several drone strikes around the village. Sheikh Abdulillah’s house has been hit three times. He says three of his bodyguards were killed. He remains in hiding.

ABDULILLAH AL DHAHAB:

[subtitles] Just so you know, I stopped going out. I only came out today to meet you. And the drones have been constantly overhead. Even if I am the target, why punish the whole village? May God help us.

28m
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