Several sources reported that US airstrikes and ground forces targeted AQAP militants, including alleged leader Saad Atef, in the Yashbum Valley of al-Saeed district in Shabwa province, overnight from March 2nd-3rd 2017, following airstrikes in the same area early on March 2nd. There were multiple allegations of civilian harm as a result of heavy munitions strikes and small arms fire between AQAP and US forces, including up to fourteen civilian fatalities.
Multiple sources alleged that civilians had been killed and injured in the course of the US operation. According to Al Jazeera, Xinhua and other sources, civilian homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, and a number of civilians, including women and children, were wounded. Sputnik News alleged that US activities had “resulted in the death and injury of civilians, including women and children”. Local sources indicated to al-Mayadeen that the strikes and fighting resulted in civilian casualties, including women and children. The BBC also reported that casualties of the operation included children.
One local language Facebook source reported that six people had been killed from the Atef family – presumably the family of Saad Atef, though it was unclear how many of this number were civilians. Another reported that three houses of the Atef family had been burned “with women and children” inside.
Meanwhile, other local language sources reported that six civilians, including women and children, were “martyred from the family of Belaid al-Salmi”, and that there were further victims in “the house of Idat Shams”. Local language Facebook sources also mentioned that family members of Belaid al-Salmi had been killed.
It is unclear whether all of those mentioned were civilians. To reflect this uncertainty, the minimum numbers of civilian deaths is presently set at ten. Maximum civilian deaths is set at fourteen, to account for twelve possible victims from the Atef and al-Salmi families, as well as at least two others in the house of Idat Shams.
Assessments of combatant casualties also varied. Al-Jazeera reported that seven “suspected al-Qaeda members were killed” in the course of US strikes in the area from March 2nd-3rd. AFP reported that eight had been killed, while local language sources, one quoting “local medics”, said that nine had been killed in exchanges of fire between US ground forces and AQAP militants. On March 3rd, Xinhua reported that “more than eleven” had been killed in the course of the firefight.
According to multiple sources, between ten and thirty US airstrikes hit the Yashbum Valley from late on March 2nd until dawn on March 3rd, with sources quoting different specific numbers of airstrikes at different times. One source claimed that continuous heavy bombing had begun at midday on March 2nd, though most reports indicated that the bulk of the strikes took place in the evening.
Multiple sources, including Al Araby, alleged that the principal target of the strikes was Saad Atef al-Ateeqi al-Awlaki, a senior AQAP leader in Shabwa, as well as known gathering places of AQAP militants. According to Akhbar al-Youm, Saad Atef had survived a previous US air strike that targeted him early on March 2nd; it was unclear whether he was killed in the March 2nd – 3rd strike.
Local residents told Almasdar Online that the overnight airstrikes “destroyed three houses, a block factory, a gas station, and a weapons depot”; on March 3rd al-Jazeera reported the same list of targets in the al-Shu’bah area of the Yashbam Valley. It is possible that this also reflects damage caused by an earlier strike at dawn on March 2nd (USYEMTr012-C). According to AFP, one of the destroyed houses belonged to Saad Atef, and local AQAP militants returned anti-aircraft fire throughout. Reports indicated that both US helicopter gunships and drones were involved in the strike. A nearby house in Idat Shams was also allegedly destroyed.
Airstrikes were reportedly accompanied, at around midnight, by the landing of US forces, potentially Navy SEALs, in Wadi Yashbum. According to Sputnik News, a “local source” alleged that US special forces clashed with AQAP militants for half an hour. Reuters also reported that a half-hour clash had taken place, based on reports from local residents, while AFP said that US forces “backed by drones and Apache helicopters… fought al-Qaeda militants for nearly an hour” before withdrawing. One source said that US helicopters had struggled to land troops in the mountainous terrain, and some indicated that AQAP had claimed to have downed a US helicopter in the course of the firefight.
Speaking with Middle East Eye, an anonymous local source said that “the strikes affected the peace and tranquility of the civilians in the village, especially women and children. Civilians are still shaken up as a result of the events. A number of civilians have been displaced as a result of the assault. Many escaped Shabwah out of fear for their lives”. Multiple reports suggested that many families had fled from the area due to the strikes; a local source told Akhbar Al-Janoubia that dozens of families had fled. One Facebook user, Ween Al Enfigar Alaan, indicated that people were displaced from some neighbouring villages in “severe terror”. Al-Mayadeen reported that many fled to nearby Ateq. According to Akhbar al-Youm, one resident described it as a “terrible night”. Akhbar al Janoubia reported on Facebook that residents said “we don’t know the number of dead of some of the families of the people of Atef, and there are wounded in the valley waiting for their transportation to hospital”.
Reuters reported that, though the Pentagon confirmed that a number of airstrikes had taken place on Friday, spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis denied that US ground forces had been involved, telling reporters “I know there have been reports of firefights, raids, there have not been any that US forces have been involved in [on Friday]”.
This strike allegedly took place amid the dramatic intensification of US operations against AQAP in March 2017; on March 3rd, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davies announced that more than thirty strikes had been conducted since March 2nd in Yemen. On March 3rd, the Associated Press reported that Yemeni officials and residents said that the US had conducted “dozens of airstrikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen overnight and in the past 48 hours in one of the lengthiest, sustained operations inside this conflict-torn Arab country”. A US military intelligence source told NBC News that the strikes beginning March 2nd were “part of ‘new directives’ to aggressively pursue the Dhahab and Qayfa clans”.
In its May 2018 annual civilian casualty report, the US Department of Defense stated that “there were credible reports of civilian casualties caused by U.S. military actions in Yemen against AQAP and ISIS during 2017”, but did not specify which specific actions these reports referred to. Overall, the Department of Defense assessed that there were credible reports of “approximately 499 civilians killed and approximately 169 civilians injured during 2017”, as a result of US military actions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
Responding to Airwars’ publication of its Yemen dataset and accompanying report in October 2020, CENTCOM dismissed all but two civilian harm claims under President Trump, asserting that “USCENTCOM conducted a thorough review of the information AirWars provided regarding allegations of potential civilian harm caused by USCENTCOM strikes in Yemen from 2017-2020… The bulk of the information asserted by AirWars, however, did not correspond with dates and locations of U.S. military strikes or raids in Yemen. Other AirWars allegations either did not allege civilian harm or were not assessed as credible upon our review.”
The incident occured during the night.