During his press conference on Thursday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer characterized President Trump’s first military raid — an action against al Qaeda in Yemen on Sunday that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and many civilians — as a “successful operation by all standards.”
“It’s hard to ever call something a complete success when you have loss of life or people injured, but I think when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life here in America and against our people and our institutions and probably throughout the world, in terms of what some of these individuals could have done, I think it is a successful operation by all standards,” Spicer said.
Yemeni officials say 16 civilians — eight women and eight children — were killed, while medics at the scene said the number of deaths was about 30. The Pentagon says 14 militants were among the dead.
Among those killed was Nawar al-Awlaki, an 8-year-old American girl, her family says. She was the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 despite not having been charged with a crime — a violation of due process rights that was widely condemned by civil liberties groups. Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed by another U.S. drone strike a few months after his father was killed. The Obama administration never publicly addressed Abdulrahman’s death, but anonymous administration officials told the press he had not been the target of that strike.
U.S. military Central Command acknowledged the civilian deaths during the latest raid in a statement released Wednesday.
“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 January 29. Casualties may include children,” CENTCOM said. “The known possible civilian casualties appear to have been potentially caught up in aerial gunfire that was called in to assist US 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.”
Spicer, speaking about the SEAL who lost his life during the raid — Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old from Peoria, Illinois — said that “when you go back and look at an individual that decided their life to serving this country… knowing the threat that these kind of individuals pose to our people — he died in sacrifice for someone else here in this nation.”
As Spicer pointed out during Thursday’s presser, planning for the raid began while Barack Obama was president. But the final reviews and sign-offs were given by Trump officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Spicer suggested Trump wasn’t personally directing the raid on Sunday. Asked about what the president was doing that night, Spicer said Trump “was here in the residence. He kept in touch with his national security staff… so he was kept apprised of situation throughout the evening.”
The Guardian, citing unnamed officials, reported that “the operation had been reviewed several times, but the underlying intelligence was not judged strong enough to justify the risks, and the case was left to the incoming Trump administration to make its own judgment.” On Wednesday, Reuters reported that unnamed U.S. military officials told them Trump signed off on the raid “without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”
“As a result, three officials said, 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,” Reuters reports.
The issues continued after the SEAL team hit the ground. An official told CNN that “during the gun battle, al Qaeda fighters took up firing positions on the roof of a nearby building and that the US troops came under fire, calling in an airstrike against the building which likely led to the civilian casualties.”
“The raid encountered more problems when an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft was forced to undergo a ‘hard landing’ which resulted in three additional service members being injured,” CNN adds. “The military opted to destroy the aircraft in an airstrike to prevent it falling into enemy hands.”
But Spicer characterized the raid as a “very, very well thought out and executed effort.”