American warplanes in Yemen conducted more than 20 airstrikes overnight against the local branch of al-Qaida, the Pentagon said, in what may be the first U.S. counterterrorism operation there since a deadly special operations raid in January.
The U.S. aircraft targeted “militants, equipment, infrastructure, heavy weapons systems and fighting positions” of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman.
American commanders coordinated the operation with the rump Yemeni government that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other Middle East allies are supporting amid the chaos of Yemen’s civil war.
Officials did not connect the attack early Thursday with the fateful special operations raid in January that killed Chief Special Warfare Operator William Ryan Owens and many civilians — the aftermath of which has become a political football in Washington, D.C.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., called the raid a “failure.” National security officials suggested in media reports that it was bungled and yielded nothing of value.
President Trump and his top lieutenants, however, have said the SEAL special operations team that attacked an AQAP compound recovered computers and other material that could help the fight against the terror group.
What’s more, Trump lashed out at McCain and others for criticizing the raid: “He only emboldens the enemy!”
The White House has stood fast — on Tuesday, Trump featured Owens’ widow, Carryn, during his address to a joint session of Congress and affirmed again that “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
But even as Trump has insisted the operation was worthwhile, he also has disclaimed responsibility for Owens’ death. Planning for the raid took place before he took office, Trump said on TV, and so, per the president, it was the generals who “lost Ryan.”
Critics were outraged by that statement, and Owens’ father, William, has refused to meet with Trump. William Owens seethed at the president in an interview with the Miami Herald over the White House’s decision to switch to a raid rather than attack AQAP from the air.
Before, Owens said, “everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden, we had to make this grand display?”
Trump, the White House and Pentagon also have been keen to emphasize what they called the value of the intelligence gained in the January operation after a messaging misfire last month. U.S. Central Command invited reporters to a briefing about a video recording found at the AQAP compound, a video instructing terror recruits about how to make bombs.
But the defense officials quickly canceled their news conference once they realized the video was about 10 years old and had circulated in public years before. The Pentagon declined to detail what else the special operations troops brought back because it was classified, limiting the administration’s ability to make a case in public.
The Yemen story, however, is not over. Central Command and other defense agencies are investigating the raid and incidents that surrounded it, including the loss of an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport aircraft. It crash-landed near the site of the attack and was deliberately destroyed by U.S. troops to keep it from being compromised.
And Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said the American counterterrorism push against AQAP in Yemen would not let up.
“AQAP has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct, and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies,” Davis said. “U.S. forces will continue to work with the government of Yemen to defeat AQAP and deny it the ability to operate in Yemen.”