First hand accounts of January SEAL raid in Yakla

Independent journalist Iona Craig covers the recent United States military raid in Yemen in a detailed report published by The Intercept. The story focuses on the tragic and horrifying impact of the January raid on the villagers who were caught in the crossfire. Craig conducted interviews with eyewitnesses, revealing the terror experienced by the families living in the village of al-Ghayil and the children who survived the attack, and the confusion and anger of the survivors over why their home was targeted and their family members killed.

Craig’s article first focuses on the family of Sinan al Ameri, a 5-year-old boy whose mother was shot from behind and killed in the raid while running from a building with his baby brother in her arms. His brother, 18 months old, was injured but survived. The family was woken in the middle of the night by gunfire, and soon helicopters were attacking the entire village, destroying houses where families and children were sleeping.

“Nesma al Ameri, an elderly village matriarch who lost four family members in the raid, described how the attack helicopters began firing down on anything that moved. As she recounted the horror of what happened, Sinan tapped her on the arm. “No, no. The bullets were coming from behind,” the 5-year-old insisted, interrupting to demonstrate how he was shot at and his mother gunned down as they ran for their lives. “From here to here,” Sinan said, putting two fingers to the back of his head and drawing an invisible line to illustrate the direction of the bullet exiting her forehead. His mother fell to the ground next to him, still clutching his baby brother in her arms. Sinan kept running.”

At least five other women and 10 children under the age of 13 were also killed in the attack. Official statements from the Pentagon claim that the raid was intended to gather intelligence, but Craig’s report states that an unnamed Special Operations adviser, as well as a current Special Operations officer, say otherwise. According to the Special Operations adviser, the goal of the raid was to kill or capture AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi. Villagers say that he was not in the area to their knowledge at the time of the attack, however.

Regardless of its purpose, Craig stresses that the raid’s organizers could and should have anticipated several factors that contributed to the amount of civilian bloodshed. First, the embattled Qafya tribal region where the raid took place has produced fighters renowned for their prowess. Bayda province, in which al-Ghayil is located, has been at war for two and a half years, and residents are battle-hardened from fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance throughout that time. On guard due to the Houthi rockets fired toward them in the preceding weeks, the Yakla men assumed when they came under attack in the middle of the night that they were fighting a Houthi invasion aimed at taking over their village. Many of their neighbors from surrounding villages rushed to the scene to help fend off the attack.

Villagers expressed their confusion over why their home was targeted in this way. It appeared that the neighboring houses of Mohammed al-Ameri and Abdelraouf al-Dhahab may have been targets; al-Dhahab’s brother Abdulelah says that Abdelraouf, killed in the firefight, was not a member of al-Qaeda although their family does have marital ties to members of the militant group. Abdelraouf was also a leader in local resistance to the Houthi-Saleh forces and fought alongside the Saudi-led coalition, America’s allies in the area. One resident also stated that Mohammed al-Ameri’s home was used at times by al-Qaeda militants passing through the area, although residents deny that any members of AQAP were present that night. Other potential reasons for the attack are speculated in the piece, but Craig emphasizes that intelligence gathering is not a well-supported explanation.

“The only evidence released so far to back up Sean Spicer’s claim that ‘the goal of the raid was intelligence gathering, and that’s what we received’ was a video posted by U.S. Central Command on February 3. CENTCOM presented the clip as confirmation of the ‘valuable’ material collected during the raid and labeled the video as an ‘AQAP course to attack the West.’ But it was quickly taken down after it was discovered that the footage was 10 years old — pre-dating the existence of AQAP in Yemen — and was readily available online. The U.S. government has yet to produce any further proof of intelligence collected from the raid.”

Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), called for a full investigation into the raid based on Craig’s. However, the review that took place ended in General Joseph Votel, in charge of the appraisal, declaring that no further investigation into the raid was warranted. Two more airstrikes were carried out in Yakla since the January raid, one shelling al-Ghayil indiscriminately according to one of the few residents who remained in the village, and one appearing to target the brother of Abdelraouf al-Dhahab and killing three more of his family members instead. These strikes were part of the ramped-up bombing campaign in Yemen over the last weeks. The US government has declared parts of Yemen an “area of active hostility,” a designation that loosens rules of engagement for US forces and reduces the burden of avoiding civilian deaths.

The Trump administration hails the SEAL raid as a success and says the massive increase in airstrikes is necessary to defeat al-Qaeda. But in Yakla, the violence carried out by the US military has only resulted in greater hostilities, anger, and a desire for revenge. These sentiments, and the deaths of children and family members that inspire them, will get the United States no closer to defeating AQAP and will bring Yemen no closer to a peaceful resolution of the civil war.