In the first counterterrorism operation authorized by President Trump, the 8-year-old daughter of a radical Yemeni-American cleric was reportedly among the dozens of civilians, Al Qaeda militants, and one US commando killed in a pre-dawn firefight in southern Yemen on Sunday, according to the girl’s grandfather.
Nawar al-Awlaki was the daughter of the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and al Qaeda leader killed in a drone strike in 2011, which former President Obama directed the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out.
On Sunday, the White House said in a statement that an American commando was killed in the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid, the first in the years-long shadow war against al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, which American intelligence and counterterrorism officials have long seen as the most dangerous branch of the global terrorist network.
The United States has been engaged in this clandestine war in Yemen since around 2002, when a drone killed an al Qaeda leader, Salim Sinan al-Harithi, and five others there. The Yemeni affiliate organized the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 and has planned numerous, thwarted attacks on commercial jets.
Saturday’s raid, meant to recover intelligence from the Qaeda unit, was in the works for months, three officials told The New York Times. But Obama administration aides ultimately chose to hand the decision over to Mr. Trump, who vowed on the campaign trail to not only go after terrorists, but also their families.
While Trump authorized the mission last week, the raid came the same day he signed a directive that ordered Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to devise within 30 days a more aggressive plan to defeat the self-declared Islamic State group. Preparing for the directive, military planners had already begun drafting classified options to present to the commander-in-chief, including loosening restrictions designed to limit the risk of civilians, according to The New York Times.
While military officials told the Times there is no indication that the rules of engagement had been loosened for the mission in Yemen, Nawar’s grandfather indicated such drone strikes and clandestine raids come at a cost.
“She was hit with a bullet in her neck and suffered for two hours," Nasser al-Awlaki told Reuters. "Why kill children? This is the new (US) administration – it's very sad, a big crime."
An al Qaeda official and an Arab news service said the raid, which started with a drone strike, followed by a ground attack, left about 30 people dead, including women and children. In the raid, an estimated 14 militants were killed, including a leader and the brother-in-law of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrauf al Dhahab.
In a statement, the Pentagon did not refer to any civilian casualties. But a US military official told Reuters that civilian deaths could not be ruled out.
In addition to the unnamed American commando killed, three other soldiers were wounded in the firefight. A fourth commando was hurt when a US military aircraft assisting with the operation experienced a “hard landing” nearby, according to US Central Command.
The “main target” of the raid “was computer materials inside the house that could contain clues about future terrorist plots,” according to The New York Times.
In a White House statement, Trump called the raid “successful,” adding it had captured “important intelligence that will assist the US in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world.”
"Americans are saddened this morning with news that a life of a heroic service member has been taken in our fight against the evil of radical Islamic terrorism," Trump said in a statement.
US officials have long viewed the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda as one of the most serious threats the network poses to Americans, as Dan Murphy reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2013.
“In September 2008, Al Qaeda supporters in Yemen launched a complex attack involving rocket-propelled grenades and at least one suicide bomber on the US Embassy in Sanaa. The attack claimed 18 lives, one of them American,” wrote Mr. Murphy. In December 2009, a “would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student in Yemen who moved in Awlaki's circles, tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. That failed attack intensified the air campaign, though drone strikes did not feature heavily again until 2011.”
Since then, the al Qaeda unit organized the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 and has repeatedly tried to down US airliners.
But it was in 2011 that the Obama administration ordered another drone strike that killed two Yemeni family members of al Awlaki: his 16-year-old American son and the boy’s 17-year-old cousin.
The risks of backlash from this drone strike campaign in Yemen have also long been understood, as Murphy wrote: increased drone strikes has led to intensified attacks on the Yemeni government from Yemenis upset about its aid to the US program, feeding "the very instability on which Al Qaeda thrives."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.