Al Qaeda Was Ready And Waiting For The SEALs On Trump’s First Raid

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The SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens was declared a success by President Donald Trump, who praised Owens and his fellow commandos, three of whom were wounded, for “killing 14 [al Qaeda] members” and “capturing important intelligence that will assist the US in preventing terrorism.” But as more details of the weekend covert counterterrorism operation emerge, it’s evident that the mission didn’t go according to plan.


U.S. Central Command has now acknowledged that the raid resulted in civilian casualties, saying in a statement that an investigating team had “concluded regrettably that civilian noncombatants were likely killed” during the raid, which culminated in a nearly hourlong firefight. Central Command also conceded that children may have been among the dead. Reports of civilian casualties first came from medics at the scene, who claimed that a total of 30 people had been killed in the battle, including 10 women and children. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters that both women and men were firing at U.S. forces.  

Meanwhile, three unnamed U.S. military officials told Reuters that the battle, which one described as a “brutal firefight,” resulted in the deaths of at least 15 Yemeni women and children, and that one of them was indeed the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was the target of a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The girl’s death, not yet confirmed by Central Command, was first announced by members of her family. “She was hit in the neck with a bullet and suffered for two hours,” her grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, told Reuters.

Despite Trump’s declaration during the campaign that you “have to take out [the] families” of terrorists, Nasser al-Awlaki said in an interview with The Guardian that he believed his granddaughter's death was not intentional.  

The military officials also told Reuters that Trump had “approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations,” which resulted in the SEAL team being ordered to advance on an al Qaeda compound fortified with landmines, snipers, and a “larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.”

The New York Times described a similar scenario but in more detail. According to the Times, the al Qaeda militants had been “somehow tipped off to the stealthy advance toward the village — perhaps by the white of American drones that local tribal leaders said were flying lower and louder than usual,” and that through a “communications intercept, the commandos knew that the mission had been somehow compromised.”

But the SEALs, joined by elite forces from the United Arab Emirates, pressed on toward their objective — the Yemeni village of Yaklaa, a stronghold of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Once there, they were rebuffed by what The Washington Post describes as an “intense counterattack,” and a pitched gunbattle ensued. The SEALs were reinforced by helicopter gunships and jets. An elite Special Operations air regiment was eventually deployed to pull the team out, but the extraction was stalled when one of its MV-22 Ospreys lost power and hit the ground hard enough to wound two service members and disable the aircraft, which was subsequently destroyed by a U.S. airstrike.

The operation was the first U.S.-led ground raid carried out in Yemen since 2014, and Owens is the first American service member to die on the ground there since the country was plunged into a bloody civil war between rebel factions and government forces. As a result of the chaos, parts of Yemen have become almost impenetrable sanctuaries for terrorist groups like ISIS and AQAP, which has been involved in multiple plots to attack U.S. targets outside Yemen. According to independent news site Bellingcat, the group was complicit in both the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Abdularoof al-Dhahab, a senior AQAP leader and the brother-in-law of Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, al Qaeda said.

The planning phase of the operation began months ago but President Barack Obama held off approving the raid before his Jan. 20 departure. Trump approved the raid soon after taking office, signaling that he planned to follow through with his campaign promise to intensify the fight against global terrorism. The new president spoke with Owens’ family to offer his condolences, and paid an unexpected visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the fallen commando’s remains. His administration maintains that the mission was a success.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who is also a U.S. Navy Reserves public affairs officer, told Reuters: “Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil — is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service.”

Army photo by Sgt. Daniel P. Shook
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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