News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Children standing in the rubble of Yakla following a deadly US raid on the village in January 2017 (Image courtesy of Iona Craig)

Published

March 2, 2021

Written by

Joseph Dyke

Previous declaration to Congress of civilian deaths in Yemen under Donald Trump was forgotten, CENTCOM admits

The US military has blamed an “administrative mistake” after conceding it forgot its own admission of the killing of up to 12 civilians during a raid on a Yemeni village in early 2017. Details of the admission feature in the Airwars annual report for 2020 which published March 2nd.

The US military led a raid targeting alleged senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in January 2017, just days after President Trump’s inauguration. According to the residents of Yakla, at least 20 and as many as 56 civilians died in the attack – including women and children. One American soldier was also killed in the fierce assault.

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) admitted the deaths of civilians just days after the assault; and CENTCOM’s then commander General Joseph Votel later told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians.

However in a public statement issued November 5th, in response to Airwars’ recent findings on the Trump administration’s actions in Yemen, CENTCOM appeared to row back heavily on Gen. Votel’s earlier admission, claiming only that “there may have been civilian casualties” during the Yakla raid.

Asked by Airwars to clarify whether it still stood by General Votel’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), a contrite CENTCOM admitted it had effectively forgotten its own role in the deaths of Yemeni civilians during what it described as an intense firefight between US forces and Al Qaeda.

“USCENTCOM stands by GEN Votel’s statement to the SASC, and we have subsequently found the appropriate documentation that credibly assesses between 4 and 12 non-combatant casualties died”.

Captain Bill Urban, CENTCOM’s spokesman, also insisted that this represented an administrative error.

“Please accept our apologies for our errant ‘may have’ in yesterday’s initial statement regarding the Jan 2017 raid…Our failure to provide an accurate assessment was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bonyan Gamal, a lawyer with the Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana, said the US mistake would be “painful” for the families of those killed at Yakla, many of whom had hoped for an official apology or compensation from the US government.

“It is shocking and I think it will cause more anger. This raid caused such sadness and shock in Yemen,” she told Airwars.

“A key criticism in our recent report on US counterterror actions in Yemen was of systemic failings in civilian casualty assessments at CENTCOM,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, which monitors civilian casualties in multiple conflicts. “It’s insulting to both Yemenis and Americans that the deaths of so many civilians in a recent botched US raid don’t appear to form a part of CENTCOM’s institutional memory.”

Years of unaccountable war 

Yemen, an impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula, has been locked in civil war for half a decade. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has also carried out a prolonged aerial campaign, supported by the United States, in a bid to unseat Houthi rebels in the capital Sanaa.

Parts of the country remain fertile territory for Al-Qaeda and more recently, for a local Islamic State franchise. Since 2009 the US has been conducting counterterrorism airstrikes and occasional ground raids. These ramped up significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, with the US military conducting at least 190 armed actions in Yemen – but with at least 86 civilians also allegedly killed, according to Airwars research.

The most deadly single incident came on January 29th 2017, only nine days after Trump’s inauguration.

US forces snuck into the village of Yakla, reportedly to target senior AQAP leaders. In the ensuing firefight dozens were killed. Several field investigations concluded that at least twenty civilians died in the attack, including women and children reportedly gunned down from the air. US Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens also died in the attack.

“This raid was one of the worst cases we have seen in Yemen,” Bonyan Gamal said. “I can only imagine the psychological and mental impact.”

During in-person testimony to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2017, Gen. Votel admitted his troops had killed between four and 12 civilians at Yakla.

“We lost a lot on this operation. We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties,” Votel told the committee. “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.”

An Airwars report published October 28th highlighted civilian casualties reportedly caused by US strikes and raids in Yemen during the Trump era, including the Yakla raid. Airwars provided comprehensive data and evidence on locally alleged civilian harm to CENTCOM more than two months ahead of publication, but received no reply until after the report was released.

On November 5th CENTCOM then admitted its first civilian harm case since Yakla, crediting Airwars for drawing a September 2017 incident to its attention. However Central Command rejected 39 other civilian harm allegations under Trump which had been flagged by Airwars – and claimed only that it “may” have harmed civilians in the notorious Yakla raid.

Transparency lacking

In 2016, outgoing US President Barack Obama had signed an Executive Order requiring the Director of National Intelligence to publish an annual summary of strikes against militant groups, and associated civilian harm, in countries such as Yemen.

Donald Trump, however, reversed that ruling in 2019 and critics say transparency around strikes had then decreased.

Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Trump administration had a far worse record on transparency than the Obama administration, “which itself was hardly open about what it knew.”

President Joe Biden recently announced an end to US support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels. The status of the 12-year long US campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen is less clear – though a recent report suggested the entire US covert drone strikes campaign is now in review.

According to Mwatana’s Bonyan Gamal, unaccountable US strikes can feed extremism. “Yakla is in a very remote area in Yemen,” she noted. “They don’t get basic services such as water, schooling, or even cell phone service. Nothing reaches there except US drones.”

▲ Children standing in the rubble of Yakla following a deadly US raid on the village in January 2017 (Image courtesy of Iona Craig)