The raid that killed 14 al Qaeda fighters and 10 civilians has raised questions, Peter Bergen says
Those include the raid's timing, who was consulted and President Trump's overall approach to fighting terrorism
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
The SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen on Sunday that killed 14 al Qaeda fighters and 10 civilians has raised questions about the approach President Donald Trump will take to fighting terrorism.
The operation was the first Special Operations raid authorized by the new President.
On the plus side of the ledger, an al Qaeda leader was killed during the raid along with 13 other al Qaeda fighters. Intelligence was also recovered at the scene, which could prove useful.
On the negative side of the ledger, the SEALS went into a heavily fortified and well-defended al Qaeda complex and suffered casualties.
The raid resulted in the death of US Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday, “It’s hard to ever call something a complete success, when you have the loss of life or people injured,” but concluded, “It is a successful operation by all standards.”
Three US service members were also wounded and a $70 million Osprey helicopter that took a “hard landing” was destroyed.
According to medics at the scene, 10 civilians were also killed, including women and children.
One of the victims was the 8-year-old daughter of the militant Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed six years ago in a CIA drone strike. She was the second of Awlaki’s children to be killed by the United States.
Initially, the US military said there were no civilian casualties.
On Wednesday US Central Command, or CENTCOM, acknowledged the raid likely resulted in civilian casualties, including children. The speed with which this admission was made was unusually swift.
The raid has also angered the Yemeni government.
So, the first, big, obvious question is: What was the rush to mount the raid?
In the past, Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, of which SEAL Team 6 is a key component, has only launched ground raids in Yemen when the lives of hostages held by al Qaeda seemed at risk.
Indeed, the Trump-authorized raid was only the third ground operation that JSOC has carried out in Yemen.
There is good reason for that. Yemen is in the grip of a brutal civil war and pretty much every adult male is armed with an AK-47.
Ground operations are inherently very risky in Yemen. The two previous JSOC raids in Yemen were both in 2014. In the first operation, eight Yemeni, Saudi and Ethiopian hostages were freed and seven al Qaeda militants were killed.
In the second raid, Luke Somers, an American photojournalist, and South African citizen Pierre Korkie were both killed during the JSOC rescue attempt.
The Trump-authorized raid had been in the planning stages for months under President Obama, but Obama didn’t authorize the raid because the first moonless night in Yemen came on January 28 after he was out of office.
Second question: Should the Trump team have waited for the next moonless night in Yemen, which falls on February 26 and gathered more intelligence on the target in the interim?
The third question: Was the Trump administration aware of the substantial number of civilians at the target? If not, why not? And if so, why did the raid proceed?
Final question: CNN’s Jim Scuitto reported that Stephen Bannon, Trump’s top policy strategist, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner were both present at the dinner where the decision to authorize the Yemen JSOC strike was weighed with President Trump.
Isn’t the presence of Bannon and Kushner at this dinner more than slightly strange? Neither have any relevant expertise or experience. It’s not even a given that they are “cleared” for discussions about JSOC’s operations, which are among the most tightly “compartmented” of the United States’ secrets.
Also at the dinner were US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford and Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser who played a key role in JSOC when he was stationed in Iraq during the Bush administration.
When President Obama was planning the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, his top policy and political advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod and others who had no “need to know” and didn’t have the requisite clearances were not included in discussions about the operation that went on at the White House over the course of nine months.
By contrast, will Bannon and Kushner participate in the key national security decisions of the Trump administration? We already have a partial answer to this question, which is Trump’s decision announced on Monday to give Bannon a seat on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee.