By: Nicole Magney, Columnist
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times
The United States has been involved in counterterrorism (CT) efforts in Yemen for years, but the special operations raid on an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound on January 29 in Al-Bayda governorate indicates a significant shift in the US CT approach in the country. The raid demonstrates the serious risks associated with conducting such a mission with limited on-the-ground intelligence and cooperation with Yemeni forces. Members of the Trump administration continue to laud the raid as “absolutely a success”[i] despite the loss of a Navy SEAL, the wounding of three others, killing of dozens of civilians, and destruction of a $75 million US aircraft.[ii] The administration and military argue that the raid achieved its purpose—to collect key intelligence on AQAP that will “help partner nations deter and prevent future terror attacks in Yemen and across the world.”[iii] However, the operation led to public controversy, especially after sources reported that an eight-year-old girl, the daughter of deceased Yemeni-American terrorist Anwar Al Awlaki, was allegedly killed during the operation.
Beyond the on-the-ground consequences, there are concerns about the nature of the decision-making process that led to the Yemen raid, and whether this case is indicative of how the Trump administration will make important CT decisions going forward. The raid has serious implications for CT strategy in Yemen, has already demonstrated counterproductive results, and most importantly, has highlighted the president’s unconventional CT decision-making process.
The raid does not represent a major departure for the United States in terms of national interest. Yemen has long been a country of keen CT focus for the United States. In a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2015, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center emphasized AQAP’s “persistent interest in targeting the US.”[iv] As the civil war in Yemen escalated in March 2015, the United States was forced to close its embassy in Sana’a and withdraw roughly 100 special operations forces from the country. Since then, AQAP has continued to exploit the power vacuum created by the civil war to gain influence and create a pseudo-state in the southern portion of the country.[v] Despite a smaller overt presence since 2015, the United States has remained actively involved over the past two years using drones, airstrikes, and special operations advising. However, the raid on January 29 (only the second publicly acknowledged US ground attack in Yemen) signifies a significant shift towards on-the-ground CT responses to AQAP.
A more aggressive US approach may be warranted in order to contain and limit AQAP’s influence and effectiveness in southern Yemen—indeed a general expansion of resources and authorities in that country was allegedly debated by the Obama administration in early January.[vi] However, the potential benefits of such intelligence gathering missions must be weighed not only against the costs of human life, military equipment, and domestic public opinion, but also public opinion in the Middle East and globally. In the days following the raid, some sources reported that the Yemeni government had withdrawn permission for future US CT operations.[vii] However, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington released a statement on February 8 that its government will continue to allow US ground force operations, despite “reservations” regarding the way the raid was carried out.[viii] While the ramifications with Yemeni partners may have been contained, the raid has been criticized as a boon to the militants it sought to deter. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm released a statement citing the operation as part of “a broader campaign against Muslims”[ix] and AQAP supporters have denounced it as evidence of US military weakness. Experts and human rights groups argue that the high number of civilian casualties will likely strengthen AQAP’s hold on the region by inspiring new recruits and fostering anti-American hostility, rather than diminishing it.[x] Therefore, although the raid achieved its immediate aims, it may prove counterproductive depending on the Trump administration’s strategic goals.
While the raid implies an intensification of US involvement, the Trump administration’s decision-making process leading up to the mission signals a more dangerous departure from the norm. Rather than call a formal National Security Council Principals Committee meeting, Trump discussed the raid with some of his advisors over an informal dinner, and the military carried it out the following morning. This meeting allegedly included Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, but excluded representatives from the State Department and intelligence community who normally play a key role in these types of decisions.[xi] In the past, representatives from the intelligence community, in particular, have been included in discussions of military escalation in order to vet the intelligence and risk assessments coming out of the Pentagon.[xii] President Trump may very well have come to the same decision had he gone through more traditional decision-making channels. These channels, nevertheless, serve important purposes for weighing all elements of a decision, particularly those with deadly consequences. By consulting a smaller circle of advisers, Trump—advertently or inadvertently—signaled which voices he values most in making national security decisions.
The January 29 raid, while an isolated operation as of now, indicates an escalation of the US CT approach in Yemen. However, it is difficult to extrapolate the administration’s CT strategy based on one operation. What we do know is that the foundation of good strategy is sound decision-making. Trump and his advisers will face many similar situations that will require difficult, measured decisions in the near future. Therefore, it is imperative that the Trump administration commits to rigorous decision-making processes now, in order to adequately address vital national security decisions and consequences going forward.
[i] Emily Schultheis, “Sean Spicer Defends U.S. Raid in Yemen as ‘Absolutely a Success,’” CBS News, February 8, 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sean-spicer-defends-u-s-raid-in-yemen-as-absolutely-a-success/.
[ii] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, “Raid in Yemen: Risky From the Start and Costly in the End,” New York Times, February 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/world/middleeast/donald-trump-yemen-commando-raid-questions.html.
[iii] “U.S. Central Command Statement on Yemen Raid,” U.S. Central Command Press Release, February 1, 2017, http://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/1068267/us-central-command-statement-on-yemen-raid/.
[iv] Nicholas J. Rasmussen, “Current Terrorist Threat to the United States,” Hearing Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 12, 2015, https://www.nctc.gov/docs/Current_Terrorist_Threat_to_the_United_States.pdf.
[v] “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Counter Extremism Project, https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-aqap.
[vi] Colin Kahl, “Trump tries rewriting history on disastrous raid’s planning,” The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, February 3, 2017, http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/trump-tries-rewriting-history-on-disastrous-raid-s-planning-869938755575.
[vii] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, “Yemen Withdraws Permission for U.S. Antiterror Ground Missions,” New York Times, February 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/middleeast/yemen-special-operations-missions.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
[viii] Yara Bayoumy and Noah Browning, “Yemen keeps counter-terrorism operations with U.S. despite raid,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-usa-idUSKBN15N1AJ.
[ix] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda criticizes American raid in Yemen,” Long War Journal, February 3, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/02/al-qaeda-criticizes-american-raid-in-yemen.php.
[x] Jack Moore, “Al-Qaeda Will Benefit from Trump Strikes on Yemen, Rights Group Says,” Newsweek, February 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/al-qaeda-will-benefit-trump-strikes-yemen-rights-group-551766.