Civilian Casualties

Civilian Casualties

Incident Code

USYEMTr006-C

Incident date

January 29, 2017

Location

الغيل, al Ghayil, Yakla, Bayda, Yemen

Geolocation

14.592945, 45.038975 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Village level. Continue to map

Geolocation accuracy

Village

Airwars assessment

At least twenty civilians, including eleven children and six women, were reportedly killed in a US Navy special forces operation in al-Ghayil village, Yakla region of Bayda province – though the reported civilian toll varied considerably.

A force of US Navy SEALs engaged in a firefight with alleged militants in the village at around 1:30am, before sustaining injuries and one death, and then calling in air support to facilitate their withdrawal.  Though the raid was publicly announced as a “site exploitation mission”, intended to recover sensitive information on AQAP militants, later reporting by NBC revealed that the mission had been to “kill-or-capture” AQAP leadership, possibly including AQAP leader Qassim al-Raymi.

Assessments of civilian casualties varied considerably.  While NBC News reported that Nasser al-Awlaki, the grandfather of Nawar al-Awlaki who was killed during the raid, alleged that some initial total fatality counts were as high as 59, local medics and tribal sources reported around 30 deaths including 10 women and children, according to Reuters.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism worked with a journalist who visited al-Ghayil five days after the raid and spoke with nine survivors, collecting the names of 25 civilians killed as reported by those who lived there.   According to the Bureau, these names were later corroborated in an investigation by Human Rights Watch.

Ten of those civilian names collected by the Bureau were under the age of 18, nine of whom were under the age of 13.  However, of the child casualties reported by the Bureau, Abdallah Ahmed Abad al-Zouba was also listed as an AQAP militant in a statement by the militant group, and is not therefore counted in Airwars’ minimum civilian child casualty figure.  Two further child casualties, not included in the Bureau’s list, were reported in international media.  Osama, the child of AQAP member Arwa al-Baghdadi, was killed during the raid, according to The Intercept and a statement by AQAP.  Multiple reports suggested that a newborn child, born 48 hours later by emergency caesarean section, subsequently died due to injuries sustained by the mother, Arwa al-Baghdadi’s sister-in-law, during the raid.

In its own list of casualties, as reported by Al Araby, AQAP stated that three unnamed children of Abu Abdelileh al-Hadrami were killed in the raid, though no other sources mentioned these children, and it was unclear whether they were the same as others already named by others.  The minimum number of civilian child casualties given by Airwars is therefore eleven, ten of whom are named.  The maximum is given as fifteen, including Abdallah Ahmed Abad al-Zouba and the three unnamed children of Abu Abdelileh al-Hadrami.  The Bureau also reported that five children were injured in the raid.

In the Bureau’s original report it was stated that, of the 25 reported civilian deaths, eight were women, including one who was heavily pregnant, and that two additional women were injured. In the Bureau’s list as published by Al Araby, however, only seven adult female casualties were named. In addition, one of the women listed, Arwa al Baghdadi, was reported to be an AQAP member by multiple sources; some AQAP propaganda channels indicated that she may have been directly involved in combat during the raid, though this was denied by local residents.

Some reports variously suggested that Arwa al-Baghdadi’s unnamed pregnant sister-in-law – the wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – either died of injuries sustained during the raid after giving birth, or survived.  It could not be confirmed whether she was among those casualties named by the Bureau or other sources.  AQAP additionally stated that the “wife of Abi Walid al-Hadrami” had been killed in the raid, but this was not confirmed by any other sources, and it was unclear whether she was among those casualties named by other sources.  Airwars’ minimum number of adult female civilian casualties is therefore presently set at six, all of whom are named, with a maximum of ten, including the eight mentioned by the Bureau and the wives of Al-Hadrami and al-Baghdadi.

Eight of the civilian names collected by the Bureau were adult men, of which five were also claimed by AQAP or other sources to be AQAP militants; Airwars’ minimum number of adult male civilian casualties is therefore set at three, all of whom are named.  Cumulatively, twenty minimum civilian fatalities of the raid are given by Airwars, of which nineteen are named.

On February 1st 2017, CENTCOM reported that civilian non-combatants were likely killed “in the midst of” the firefight, and that this “may include children”.  According to this report, “the known possible civilian casualties appear to have been potentially caught up in aerial gunfire that was called in to assist U.S. forces in contact against a determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions, and U.S. special operations members receiving fire from all sides to include houses and other buildings”.

On February 28th, a Pentagon official told NBC News that the Pentagon did not dispute the numbers reported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. However, in March, General Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that US forces killed between four and twelve civilians casualties in the raid. A later investigation by NBC included US intelligence sources saying sixteen civilians in total died as a result of the operation, contradicting Votel’s March comments. NBC determined from official documents verified by US intelligence that ten children under 13 had been killed.   A later internal Joint Special Operations Command report, obtained by The Intercept in December 2018, described the raid as resulting in “minimal civilian casualties”.

Numbers of reported combatant casualties also exhibited considerable variance.  One US soldier, Navy SEAL William ‘Ryan’ Owens, was killed by fire from alleged militants, while at least three further US personnel were injured, some during the “hard landing” of an Osprey helicopter during the raid.

US Central Command initially reported that fourteen AQAP militants were killed during the raid, including “two longstanding AQAP operational planners and weapons experts”, Sultan al-Dhahab and Abd-al-Ra’uf al-Dhahab.  Some local sources, as well as an AQAP statement, further suggested that Saif al-Jawqfi, an 80 year-old killed during the raid, had connections to AQAP.  According to “local sources”, reported by Al Jazeera, an AQAP leader, Abu Abu Barzan, was also killed, though other sources did not mention his name, and he did not appear in casualty lists given by either AQAP or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  According to AFP, one local Yemeni source initially stated that as many as 41 total “presumed militants” had been killed.  The internal Pentagon report obtained by The Intercept in December 2018 gave an overall number of 35 enemy combatants killed.

Several reports indicated that at least three of those killed during the raid were AQAP members.  Multiple sources suggested that the son of a local tribesman, Mohammed al-Ameri, Arwa al-Baghdadi and her brother Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were “low-level” AQAP militants; all three were killed during the raid. Arwa and Abu Bakr were being sheltered in Mohammed al-Ameri’s house at the time of the raid, and one source indicated that this house was also used by passing AQAP militants.

Further, some witnesses suggested that additional AQAP militants may have joined the firefight from the surrounding area during the raid.  To reflect these issues, Airwars’ minimum estimate of militants killed in the raid is set at three.  Correspondingly, the maximum number of civilian casualties is set at 56, reflecting the highest alleged death toll of 59, less the three minimum militant casualties recorded by Airwars.  The maximum number of combatant casualties is set at 42, to reflect the highest alleged number of militant casualties, in addition to the single US death.

However, local sources and on-the-ground reporting cast significant doubt upon the more substantial militant casualty figures given by the US military and some other sources.  Both local residents and Yemeni state sources, as well as an investigation by the Associated Press, disputed that Sultan al-Dhahab or Abd-al-Ra’uf al-Dhahab were AQAP militants.  Instead, multiple sources, including Yemeni government army moral guidance director Major General Mohsen Kosroof, claimed that Abd-al-Ra’uf al-Dhahab was instead a leader of US-backed pro-Hadi militia forces, and that he had returned to Yakla to distribute payment to fighters.  Both are listed as civilians in the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report on the raid.

In an interview with PBS Frontline, Abdulilah al-Dhahab, brother of Sultan and Abd-al-Ra’uf, said that neither were AQAP militants, and also stated that Abd-al-Ra’uf was a leader in the US-backed anti-Houthi forces.  The Yemeni government confirmed to PBS Frontline that Abd-al-Ra’uf held this position.  Abdulilah al-Dhahab went into hiding in the aftermath of the raid, according to Frontline, and has since been the target of several reported US raids.

In an investigation for The Intercept, journalist Iona Craig suggested that many of the combatants encountered by US forces in the al-Ghayil were likely scared civilians acting in self-defence, rather than AQAP militants, having previously been attacked by Houthi forces. “If you want to hunt al-Qaida, you can find them in the surrounding mountains not in this small village… The Americans’ information was wrong,” said Aziz Mabkhout, the village chief, according to Associated Press.  PBS Frontline later published witness testimony, suggesting that the village had been attacked by Houthis hours before the raid, and that the villagers initially believed US forces to also be Houthis.

In an initial statement, AQAP indicated that the raid had killed “only women and children… with some tribal leaders who have no connections” to the group, while a statement by AQAP leader al-Raymi listed fourteen men as dead, but did not clearly state that they were AQAP members.  Eight of those names given were listed with a nom de guerre, indicating likely membership.  According to Iona Craig of The Intercept, eight names given by AQAP were not included in the list of the dead that villagers provided to her, and were not known to local residents.  They were also not given in the Bureau’s list of casualties.  Family members disputed that the remaining six men were AQAP militants.  These six names included Mohammed al-Ameri, Sultan al-Dhahab, Abd-al-Ra’uf al-Dhahab, Saif al-Jawqfi, and seventeen year-old Abdallah Ahmed Abad al-Zouba, as well as Abdallah Mabkhout al-Ameri.

Similarly, both local residents and commentators disputed the reports by US Central Command that female fighters had been involved in the firefight.  Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Davis stated that “female fighters ran to pre-established positions as though they had trained to be ready” to fight during the raid.  Some AQAP propaganda channels reported that women had been involved in combat during the raid.  However, all of those local residents spoken to by Iona Craig for The Intercept “strongly challenged this accusation, citing a culture that views the prospect of women fighting, as Nesma al Ameri put it, as ‘eib’ — shameful and dishonorable — and pointing out the practical implausibility of women clutching babies while also firing rifles”.  It is unclear what proportion of US-reported enemy casualties, if any, female fighters constituted.

According to both global media and local sources, the raid began in the early hours of the morning of January 29th.  Around thirty US SEALs and Emirati special forces entered the village, accompanied by military dogs. After taking wounded and one fatality – Navy SEAL William ‘Ryan’ Owens, US forces called in air support, including two Marine Corps CV-22 Osprey tilt rotor vertical take-off and landing aircraft, along with AV-8B Harrier jump jets and attack helicopters.  During attempts to evacuate the US-Emirati forces, one Osprey helicopter experienced a “hard landing”, and was then intentionally destroyed by US aircraft.  Multiple sources suggested that the overall firefight lasted for around an hour.

Local sources alleged that US forces began firing on the village and killing indiscriminately, causing civilians to take up arms in self-defence.  One anonymous local resident told Reuters that the “operation began at dawn when a drone bombed the home of Abdulraoof al-Dhahab and then helicopters flew up and unloaded paratroopers at his house and killed everyone inside”, and, subsequently, “the gunmen opened fire at the U.S. soldiers who left the area, and the helicopters bombed the gunmen and a number of homes and led to a large number of casualties”.

According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, “men in al-Dahab’s house heard people approaching and called out. When they got no response, they began shooting”. Another witness said that “the men in [al-Dahab’s] house fired warning shots into the air and that the forces outside then opened fire on the home”.  Some sources reported that this advance was accompanied, or shortly preceded, by aerial strikes against the village. According to Alwaght, these targeted “a number of locations where al-Qaeda elements are believed to be entrenched in the area, including a school and an al-Qaeda prison”.  Others told Human Rights watch that “[Mohammed] al-Ameri’s house was destroyed by an aerial bomb soon after fighting began, killing at least nine people, including him, four women, and four children”.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that eleven-year-old Ahmed al-Dhahab was one of the first killed in the raid.  His father, Abdelilah Ahmed al-Dhahab, told the Bureau that “when my son Ahmed saw them, he couldn’t tell that they were soldiers because it was dark… He asked them ‘Who are you?’ but the men shot him. He was the first killed. No one thought that marines would descend on our homes to kill us, kill our children and kill our women”.  Abdelilah al-Dhahab later told PBS Frontline that his son was shot through the heart by US forces when he saw them, prompting the family to return fire.

Abdullah al-Dhahab, whose son, Nasser, was killed in the raid told the Bureau “that his son had gone to visit family members in the Yakla area during the midterm school holiday… ‘Nasser was very smart, and he was special to me. He was my friend, despite being young, and I trusted his decisions. … The American raid killed my son, a student in the eighth grade. … There needs to be accountability for those who carried out this crime before American courts'”.

According to witness Sadiq al Jawfi, both Abd-al-Ra’uf al-Dhahab and Sultan al-Dhahab were shot as they exited their home, as well as 80-year-old Saif al Jawfi.  Witnesses, including Abdelilah al-Dhahab, told the Bureau that US forces fired indiscriminately on the home of 65-year-old Abdallah Mabkhout al-Ameri, attacking everyone who left their home.  Abdallah was a survivor of a previous US drone strike in the area, in 2013, which had hit his wedding.  Saleh Mohsen al-Ameri said that US forces “attacked the mosque, school, medical unit and a prison in the area…  Anybody leaving the house was hit and killed… people in here have nothing but Kalashnikovs” to defend themselves.  According to The Intercept, the firefight escalated as others from the area came to support the al-Ghayil villagers.  Some sources claimed that AQAP militants from the area joined the battle, but others mentioned only villagers.

Further reported civilian casualties came as the result of US close air support.  Aziz al-Ameri reported that “[attack helicopters] were shooting at anything moving, anything that moved they shot, human or animal, even donkeys”.  Several reports suggested that multiple houses and buildings were destroyed by air support.  Speaking with Iona Craig of The Intercept, 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”.  Various sources alleged that 30-year-old Fatim Saleh Mohsen al-Ameri was shot in the back of the head and killed while fleeing fire with her 18-month-old son and her other children.  Her son, Mohammed, survived, but was injured.   “We pulled him out from his mother’s lap. He was covered in her blood,” said 11-year-old Basil Ahmed Abad al­ Zouba.  Fahad Ali al-Ameri said that his three-month-old daughter was killed in her crib when a missile hit his home.  The Intercept reported that three children of Mohammed al-Ameri were killed when an airstrike hit his home.

Nawar al-Awlaki, an eight year-old girl visiting her uncle in the village, was reportedly killed while hiding in a house, after fire from a gunship hit her in her neck.  According to her uncle, Abdelilah al-Dahab, she bled to death over the course of two hours. Her grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, who was not present at the time of the raid, told NBC News that “when the attack came, they were sitting in the house, and a bullet struck her in her neck at 2:30 past midnight. Other children in the same house were killed.”  According to Nasser, US forces “entered another house and killed everybody in it, including all the women. They burned the house”.  Nawar al-Awlaki’s father, the American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a US drone strike in 2011.  Her sixteen-year-old American-born brother was also killed by a 2011 US drone strike.

Reporting by Human Rights Watch further suggested that those injured during the raid struggled to get medical care.  “Dr. Ameen Mabrook, director of the “26th September” hospital in al-Joubah district in Marib, a five-hour drive from the Yakla area and the nearest hospital that provides neonatal care, said that the hospital received three people wounded in the raid – a young man shot in the leg, a pregnant woman, and a small girl”.  The pregnant woman, the sister-in-law of Arwa al-Baghdadi, had been shot in the stomach, and gave birth to a child who later died on January 31st due to these injuries.

This picture of events strongly contradicts reports from US officials and US Central Command.  In a CENTCOM press release, it was stated that the US force came under attack from a “determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions, and U.S. special operations members receiving fire from all sides to include houses and other buildings”.  Speaking with Reuters, three US officials said that “the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists”.  “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a horrifying history of hiding women and children within militant operating areas and terrorist camps, and continuously shows a callous disregard for innocent lives”, said CENTCOM spokesperson Col. John J. Thomas.

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 credible 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.

The incident occured at approximately 1:30 am local time.

The victims were named as:

Family members (16)

Family members (4)

Family members (2)

Family members (3)

Family members (4)

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Counter-Terrorism Action (Ground)
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    20 – 56
  • (11–15 children6–10 women3–8 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    United States Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  • Belligerents reported killed
    4–42
  • Belligerents reported injured
    3–6

Sources (90) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (46) [ collapse]

  • The Pentagon said that an Osprey helicopter had experienced a "hard landing" during the raid, allegedly shown here (Al Jazeera, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki was reportedly fatally wounded after US forces fired upon the house she was hiding in during the raid. Photos of her body, shown here, circulated online after the raid. (Alshahed News, January 29th 2017)
  • Interior view of a building allegedly destroyed during the raid (Alahd, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@amerAlhamiqaniu, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    Abd al-Raoud al-Dahab was reportedly killed during the January 29th 2017 raid. The US claimed that he was an AQAP militant, but other sources disputed this, instead suggesting that he was pro-Hadi government fighter (@shahd201062, January 29th 2017)
  • Abd al-Raoud al-Dahab was reportedly killed during the January 29th 2017 raid. The US claimed that he was an AQAP militant, but other sources disputed this, instead suggesting that he was pro-Hadi government fighter (@shahd201062, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    A compilation of alleged child victims of the raid (@ahmadnaser4444, January 29th 2017)
  • A car allegedly destroyed during the January 29th 2017 raid (@almisbarr, January 29th 2017)
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    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@m_alsallaly, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@mazenyemen, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@mazenyemen, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@abu_japheth, January 29th 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@abu_japheth, January 29th 2017)
  • Alleged remnants of US medical supplies from the site of the raid (Elyamnelaraby, January 29th 2017)
  • Alleged remnants of US medical supplies from the site of the raid (Elyamnelaraby, January 29th 2017)
  • Abd al-Raoud al-Dahab was reportedly killed during the January 29th 2017 raid. The US claimed that he was an AQAP militant, but other sources disputed this, instead suggesting that he was pro-Hadi government fighter (Tehama Press, January 29th 2017)
  • "William Owens holds a photo of his son, Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida." (NBC, October 1st 2017) William "Ryan" Owens was killed during the raid.
  • "William Owens stands with his son, William "Ryan" Owens, in front of a helicopter in a family photo." (NBC, February 27th 2017) US Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens was killed during the raid.
  • Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki was reportedly fatally wounded after US forces fired upon the house she was hiding in during the raid. (@nationalyemen, February 3rd 2017)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    A newborn child allegedly died, 48 hours after the raid, due to wounds sustained by the mother during the raid. Some sources alleged that the mother was the nine-months pregnant sister-in-law of Arwa al-Baghdadi, and had been shot in the stomach. (@karot2525, January 31st 2017)
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    Pro-AQAP media channels used images from the raid in propaganda efforts (@ludowizze, January 30th 2017)
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    An alleged casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@doamuslims, January 29th 2017)
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    An alleged child casualty of the January 29th 2017 raid (@doamuslims, January 29th 2017)
  • The Pentagon said that an Osprey helicopter had experienced a "hard landing" during the raid, allegedly shown here (@defence_blog, January 29th 2017)
  • The Pentagon said that an Osprey helicopter, of the type shown here, had experienced a "hard landing" during the raid (@defence_blog, January 29th 2017)
  • "Ryan Owens, left, with his father Bill Owens." (NBC, October 1st 2017)
  • "CPO Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL who died in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen in January 2017" (NBC, October 1st 2017)
  • A map of Yemen, produced by NBC News, showing the location of Yakla, where the January 29th raid took place (NBC, October 1st 2017)
  • The interior of a building damaged during the January 29th 2017 raid (NBC, October 1st 2017)
  • A building damaged during the January 29th 2017 raid (NBC, October 1st 2017)
  • "Relatives of those who died, including the seven children of Fatim Saleh Mohsen al-Ameri" (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Febuary 9th 2017)
  • Abdallah Mabkhout al-Ameri was killed during the raid. He had survived a previous US strike on his wedding in 2013. (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 9th 2017)
  • Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki was reportedly fatally wounded after US forces fired upon the house she was hiding in during the raid. (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 9th 2017)
  • Interior view of a building allegedly destroyed during the raid (Alahd, January 29th)
  • A map of al-Ghayil, published by The Intercept (March 9th 2017), detailing the locations of the raid
  • A girl in the remains of a building, reportedly destroyed during the January 29th 2017 raid (The Intercept, March 9th 2017)
  • Children in the ruins of a house, destroyed during the January 29th 2017 raid (The Intercept, March 9th 2017)
  • The village of al-Ghayil, in which the raid took place (The Intercept, March 9th 2017)
  • "Mabkhout Ali al Ameri stands with his 18-month-old son, Mohammed, in the village of al Ghayil in Yemen’s al Bayda province. Mabkhout’s wife, Fatim Saleh Mohsen, was shot in the back of the head by helicopter gunship fire as she fled with Mohammed in her arms during a U.S. raid on January 29, 2017. The vehicle in the background was also destroyed during the assault." (The Intercept, March 9th 2017)
  • Buildings damaged during the raid (Reprieve, February 2nd 2017)
  • The interior of a building damaged during the raid (@doamuslims, January 29th 2017)
  • Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki was reportedly fatally wounded after US forces fired upon the house she was hiding in during the raid. (Yemenpress, January 29th 2017)
  • Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki was reportedly fatally wounded by US fire during the raid (CNN, January 31st 2017)
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    Video footage of a child allegedly killed during the raid
  • Alleged video footage of al-Ghayil village, showing damage caused in the raid.
  • PBS Frontline visited the site of the Yakla raid, recording interviews with eyewitnesses of the raid

Geolocation notes (1) [ collapse]

Reports of the incident mention a firefight and several strikes in the village of Al Ghayil (الغيل‎), for which the coordinates are: 14.592945, 45.038975. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

  • Tagged satellite imagery of the event from The Intercept.

    Imagery:
    The Intercept, 2017

United States Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Known belligerent
    United States Armed Forces
  • United States Armed Forces position on incident
    Credible / Substantiated
    The investigation assessed that although all feasible precautions were taken and the decision to strike complied with the law of armed conflict, unintended civilian casualties regrettably occurred.
  • Given reason for civilian harm
    Killed by strike blast, Unseen at time of engagement, Inside target building, Killed in adjacent structure
    Airwars’ assessment of belligerent’s civilian casualty statement
  • Initial Airwars grading
    Confirmed
  • Civilian deaths conceded
    4–12
  • Civilian injuries conceded
    None

Civilian casualty statements

United States Armed Forces
  • Mar 9, 2017
  • Feb 1, 2017
  • A team designated by the operational task force commander has concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight during a raid in Yemen Jan. 29. Casualties may include children. The ongoing credibility assessment seeks to determine if there were any still-undetected civilian casualties in the ferocious firefight that also claimed the life of Navy Seal Team Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens and wounded three other U.S. service members. The known possible civilian casualties appear to have been potentially caught up in aerial gunfire that was called in to assist U.S. forces in contact against a determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions, and U.S. special operations members receiving fire from all sides to include houses and other buildings. This complex situation included small arms fire, hand grenades and close air support fire. Analysts are carefully assessing whether additional non-combatant civilians that were not visible to the assault force at the time were mixed in with combatants. The raid resulted in the seizure of materials and information that is yielding valuable intelligence to help partner nations deter and prevent future terror attacks in Yemen and across the world. “Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula has a horrifying history of hiding women and children within militant operating areas and terrorist camps, and continuously shows a callous disregard for innocent lives,” said Col. John J. Thomas, U.S. Central Command spokesman. “That’s what makes cases like these so especially tragic.”

  • Senator Kaine: If I might, one last question with respect to Yemen. We have had hearings in this committee about the ground operation in Yemen, which to my knowledge was the first ground operation by DOD forces in Yemen. There were a number of questions raised by that. I do not want to go into the classified briefing we had, but questions about was the mission compromised in some way in the advance. What intel was gained? There was some after the-fact justification of the mission using video that actually had been taken in another mission. Is the DOD conducting an ongoing investigation of that mission to determine all lessons learned, what worked, what did not, and what we can do better? General Votel: Senator, thank you, and let me answer this a little more comprehensively. First and foremost, I am responsible for this mission. I am the CENTCOM Commander and I am responsible for what is done in my region and what is not done in my region. So I accept the responsibility for this. We lost a lot on this operation. We lost a valued operator. We had people wounded. We caused civilian casualties. We lost an expensive aircraft. We did gain some valuable information that will be helpful for us. Our intention here was to improve our knowledge against this threat, a threat that poses a direct threat to us here in the homeland. And that was what we were focused on. There have been a number of investigations that have been initiated. Most of these are regulatory or statutory in terms of things that we normally do. When we lose an aircraft, there is both a safety investigation to ensure that we disseminate lessons learned for the broader fleet, and there is also a collateral investigation that tries to determine the specific reason why that happened and establishes accountability over that. We have done an investigation into the civilian casualties. That has been completed. The helicopter investigations are ongoing. The civilian casualty aspect has been completed, and we have made a determination based on our best information available that we did cause casualties, somewhere between 4 and 12 casualties that we accept -- I accept responsibility for. We have done a line of duty investigation, again a statutory investigation, on the death of Senior Chief Owens that determined that he was in the line of investigation. The key mechanism that I have, Senator, is the after action review, and this is something we do with every operation we do. And the intention here is to review the operation in great detail to understand exactly what happened. And it is done with the chain of command in place. And we have done that and I have presided over that. Based on my experience, nearly 37 years of service, I have certainly appointed a lot of investigations and I have been through a lot of these after-action reviews. When I go through these things, there are some specific things that I am looking for. I am looking for information gaps where we cannot explain what happened in a particular situation or we have conflicting information between members of the organization. I am looking for indicators of incompetence or poor decision-making or bad judgment throughout all of this. So what I can tell you is that we did an exhaustive after-action review on this. I presided over that. It went down to a level that included people who were on the specific objective. As a result of that, I was satisfied that none of those indicators that I identified to you were present. I think we had a good understanding of exactly what happened on this objective, and we have been able to pull lessons learned out of that that we will apply in future operations. And as a result, I made the determination that there was no need for an additional investigation into this particular operation. Senator Kaine: So the only investigation that continues is the investigation -- or the loss of the helicopters is still not complete. General Votel: That is correct, Senator. Senator Kaine: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chair. Chairman McCain: Just to follow up, General, there has been a lot of conversation about this particular mission and the point that some of us are trying to make that the heroism and sacrifice of those who served has nothing to do with the mission itself. In other words, we honor their sacrifice no matter what happened in the mission. And when you have women and children killed, as you pointed out, the loss of a $70 million aircraft, you did not capture anyone as was part of the mission, that mission is not a success. But that happens in war. There is a thing called the fog of war. They did the best they could under very difficult circumstances. And I hope in the process of your investigation, when heavy fire was encountered why the decision was made to continue the mission -- I still do not think this committee has an answer to that question. But it does not question the loyalty and sacrifice and bravery when we question the mission. And unless we tell the American people the truth, the absolute truth, then we are going to revisit another war a long time ago where we did tell the American people the truth and we paid a very heavy price for it. There are 55,000 names engraved in black granite not far from here, and the American people were not told the truth about whether we were succeeding or failing in that war. And then because of that, it all collapsed. So I hope that we will not forget that lesson, and in no way does it detract from the heroism and professionalism and sacrifice of the brave men and women who serve under your command.

Original strike reports

United States Armed Forces

An estimated 14 al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists were killed yesterday during a raid by U.S. forces in Yemen, according to a U.S. Central Command news release issued today.
One U.S. service member died of wounds suffered in the raid, and three others were wounded, the release said.
The names of the deceased and wounded service members are being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin, the release said.
“In a successful raid against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula headquarters, brave U.S. forces were instrumental in killing an estimated 14 AQAP members and capturing important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world,” President Donald J. Trump said in a statement issued today.
Trump added, “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. The sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces, and the families they leave behind, are the backbone of the liberty we hold so dear as Americans, united in our pursuit of a safer nation and a freer world. 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.”
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our elite service members,” Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Centcom’s commander, said in the Centcom release. “The sacrifices are very profound in our fight against terrorists who threaten innocent peoples across the globe.”
A U.S. military aircraft assisting in the operation experienced a hard landing at a nearby location, resulting in an additional U.S. injury, according to the Centcom release. That aircraft was unable to fly after the landing. The aircraft was then intentionally destroyed in place.
The raid is one in a series of aggressive moves against terrorist planners in Yemen and worldwide, according to the Centcom release. Similar operations have produced intelligence on al-Qaida logistics, recruiting and financing efforts.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Declared strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Counter-Terrorism Action (Ground)
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    20 – 56
  • (11–15 children6–10 women3–8 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Confirmed
    A specific belligerent has accepted responsibility for civilian harm.
  • Known attacker
    United States Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  • Belligerents reported killed
    4–42
  • Belligerents reported injured
    3–6

Sources (90) [ collapse]