The tribal delegation visiting Sheikh Abdelraouf al-Dhahab was still talking in the very early hours of the morning last Sunday when his nephew, Abdullah, noticed strangers approaching on foot across the rocky, inhospitable terrain of central Yemen.
“Who are you?” Abdullah called out into the night. “Who are you?”
The men shot him dead.
Startled by the gunfire, the Dhahab family scrambled to take up its own weapons and defend its house.
According to accounts by locals, this was the way the battle began with U.S. special operations forces and some of their allies, which would unfold over several hours on the ground — and end with an aerial bombardment.
By dawn, one American sailor was dead and three other service members were injured. Locals say numerous civilians, including women and nine children, were among the Yemenis killed. The U.S. military has opened an investigation, and U.S. military officials tell NPR that civilians were indeed among the victims.
Taken together, claims and counterclaims from the U.S. military and local residents described a chaotic operation, one that drew sharp criticism from Yemeni officials who usually support the U.S. The aftermath of the raid shows the potential dangers if the U.S. military relaxes its current restrictions about using force and protecting civilians, which President Donald Trump has asked the Pentagon to review.
One local man, Sadeq al-Jawfi, was monitoring the battle from his village about 3 miles away, in constant telephone contact with men from his tribe who were visiting the Dhahab family.
American officials described the raid as an attack on a compound. But Jawfi’s description was of a family house in a village with similar houses, albeit one with guard posts, where people were well-armed.
The Dhahabs and other families fought against the American raiders, who called in air support. The bombardment struck houses in which families were sheltering.
Jawfi told NPR that 24 people were killed and provided a list of names including nine men, six women and nine children. He has served on a body known as a de-escalation committee, which works with the U.S.-recognized Yemeni government in coordination with the United Nations to try to quell violence in the troubled country.
NPR previously reported the death of the 8-year-old daughter of Yemeni-American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. She lived with her grandfather in the capital, Sanaa, but was visiting her mother, who is Abdelraouf al-Dhahab’s sister.
The fighting also claimed the life of a Navy SEAL, Chief Special Warfare Operator William Owens. Other U.S. troops were injured when their aircraft crash-landed as part of the operation. On Wednesday, President Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base to take part in the transfer of Owens’ body from the military to his family.
The casualties were the military’s first under Trump, who approved the special operations raid after planning began in November under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The battle and its aftermath, described to NPR by U.S. national security officials as well as the local witnesses, are the subject of a new investigation by the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East.
Although the Americans are continuing to look into what happened, CENTCOM Wednesday acknowledged “regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed.”
By around 5 a.m. Sunday, the raiders were gone and the skies were clear, locals said. Abdullah al-Taissi, a tribal sheikh who lives in the village and confirmed much of Jawfi’s account, watched the attack from his house.
“I walked out of my house when it was over and began burying the dead,” he said. “By noon, we were done.”
Taissi said he counted about 28 bodies. Abdelraouf was among the dead, as was his brother, Sultan, and a tribal sheikh named Saif al-Jawfi.
In Washington, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the raid — which he called “very, very well thought out and executed” — had yielded valuable intelligence about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The local witnesses disputed that, saying the special operations troops never entered any buildings to take any computers or documents.
Spicer said 14 of those killed were AQAP terrorists. Sadeq al-Jawfi also disputed that Abdelraouf al-Dhahab was a member of AQAP — though he did not deny family connections with the group.
“Look,” Jawfi said, “there were brothers who had connections to al-Qaida, this is true.” But the three Dhahab brothers he named were already dead before Sunday’s raid — two killed by drone strikes and one by a fourth brother.
Jawfi said Dhahab was working with the displaced Yemeni government that the U.S. and its allies have been supporting against Houthi rebels, who are armed and supported by Iran.
In fact, Jawfi said, Dhahab had just returned from a trip to Maarib province to collect money to pay the salaries of pro-government fighters.
The Yemeni government’s foreign minister condemned the attack. A spokesman for the armed forces confirmed to local news media that Dhahab had been working for them.
“Abdelraouf al-Dhahab was not a terrorist or connected to any radical group,” said Mohsen Khasrouf, the spokesman. “We are surprised this has happened.”
Reuters, on the other hand, reports that AQAP called Abdelraouf a “holy warrior.”
Also conflicted: Women in the compound may have started out as bystanders but became combatants when they took up weapons from the dead men, said one senior U.S. military official. Thus they would have posed a threat to the special operations raiders, complicating the issue of which casualties were civilian.
Central Command may answer some of these questions in its investigation, but given the highly sensitive nature of U.S. special operations, the information may not become public.
Trump has criticized Obama for being overly cautious against al-Qaida, and Trump’s national security advisers have suggested that he could lift current restrictions intended to avoid civilian casualties. Spicer suggested Thursday that the loss of life in Sunday’s raid was justified.
“When you think of the loss of life throughout America and institutions and in terms of the world, in terms of what some of the individuals could have done, I think it is a successful operation by all standards,” he said.
The complex and risky nature of such raids is underscored by the death of a senior American special operator, the deaths of children and the fine line between being a legitimate tribal sheikh and one allied with a U.S.-backed government.
Yemen has been in chaos since the fall of its government in 2011. As the poorest Arab country, it had always struggled, but its civil war has reduced it to the level of a failed state in which its onetime government, Iranian-supported Houthi rebels, al-Qaida and other groups all are struggling for power.
The U.S. has continued its years-long series of counterterrorism operations against AQAP throughout the conflict, while supporting a campaign of Saudi and other Arab airstrikes against the Houthis.
But human rights groups have called the Saudi operations brutal, causing indiscriminate deaths of civilians as well as combatants. And a Saudi blockade of Yemen has created one of the world’s worst food crises, putting millions of people on the brink of famine.
So far, Trump has not outlined a plan to try to put Yemen on a sustainable footing over the long term. Administration officials are, however, focused on the security dangers they see there, including the threat to the West from AQAP and the local danger posed by Iran’s use of the local Houthis.
A suicide boat attack this week damaged a Saudi warship in the Red Sea, and last year, Houthis using Iranian-supplied weapons launched missile attacks on United Arab Emirates and U.S. warships. On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn cited these and other “malign actions” by Iran when he announced the United States was putting Tehran “on notice.”
The next time the Iranians launch a ballistic missile, attack ships or engage in similar actions, a senior administration official warned, the United States will take unspecified “appropriate action.”