The first counterterrorism operation authorized by President Trump was carried out in Yemen on January 29th. The raid on an AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) compound had two primary objectives:
- Gather intelligence on AQAP by collecting laptops and mobile devices.
- Kill or capture Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of AQAP and considered the third most dangerous terrorist in the world — in part because he is a master recruiter.
While intelligence was successfully gathered, and 14 militants were killed (including three senior AQAP officials), several aspects of the mission did not go as planned. As a result:
- Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens of SEAL Team 6 was killed, and three other SEALs were wounded.
- At least 23 civilians were killed, including women and children (among them, the 8-year-old daughter of American militant Anwar al-Awlaki).
- Qassim al-Rimi either survived, or was not present inside the compound. (He later released a verified recording mocking Trump.)
- A $72 million Osprey MV-22 had to be destroyed after encountering a “hard landing” rendering it inoperable.
Trump released a statement after the raid calling the mission a success, and acknowledging the death of Ryan Owens.
In a successful raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) headquarters, brave US forces were instrumental in killing an estimated 14 AQAP members and capturing 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. My deepest thoughts and humblest prayers are with the family of this fallen service member. I also pray for a quick and complete recovery for the brave service members who sustained injuries.
On February 2nd, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the mission a “very, very well thought out and executed effort” and “a successful operation by all standards” while also acknowledging the tragedy of Owens’ death.
On February 7th, John McCain — a POW of the Vietnam war and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee — released a statement criticizing the decision to continue the raid despite “significant opposition,” and characterizing the overall mission as a failure.
The next day, McCain reiterated his opinion during an NBC News interview.
My understanding of the parameters of the raid were that they wanted to capture individuals, and obviously they didn’t want to kill children or women.
I don’t think you can — when you lose an $75 million airplane — and more importantly an American life is lost and wounded, I don’t believe you can call it a success.
On February 8th, during a press briefing, Spicer universally lashed out at anyone criticizing or questioning the success of the mission:
It’s absolutely a success and I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens. He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission and anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was.
I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and a disservice to the life of Chief Owens. The action that was taken in Yemen was a huge success.
The next day, Trump — who denies that John McCain is a war hero — followed up with a series of angry Tweets insisting that the mission was a success while also using the opportunity to belittle McCain:
While the overall success or failure of the mission is clearly subjective, many of the characterizations of the raid are much less so. Given that the “cite exploitation” aspect (the collection of intelligence) was successful, and the fact that 14 militants were killed, McCain’s depiction of the mission as a failure is not fully accurate.
However, given the death of a Navy SEAL, extensive civilian casualties, the inability to kill or capture Qassim al-Rimi (who is now rallying more militants), and the loss of a military aircraft, perhaps the term “partial success” would have been less divisive than calling the raid a “successful operation by all standards.”
Update (2/27/2017): The father of Chief Owens refused to meet with Donald Trump on the day his son’s body was returned to the United States. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Mr. Owens said:
Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — 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?