A Navy SEAL was killed when the mission came under attack from al Qaeda
The Yemen raid is part of a new strategy for dealing with AQAP
The White House asked the Pentagon for information it could make public in President Donald Trump’s Tuesday night address about a controversial Special Operation raid in Yemen to better explain the mission’s purpose and demonstrate that the results were worth its costs, CNN has learned.
The request came Monday night, two administration officials said. They stressed, though, that it’s not clear what details the speech will actually include, if any, as it continues to be revised.
The White House confirmed that it had spoken to the Pentagon, but a senior administration official who has seen the address said the raid is not referred to in the current version – but that’s not a guarantee that it won’t end up in there by 9 p.m.
The controversial raid on an al Qaeda affiliate, conducted one week into Trump’s presidency, was the US military’s first on-the-ground mission in Yemen since his election. A Navy SEAL and several civilians were killed when the team came under attack from al Qaeda, with others wounded and a US aircraft lost.
The administration described the raid as a success. But it has been criticized by the father of the fallen Navy SEAL, as well as some members of Congress who have raised questions about the value of the mission.
The raid aimed to gather intelligence, a senior US official told CNN, and another official said a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could also have been a target. The Pentagon and US Central Command have strongly denied that he was a target, however.
While there were no indications of an imminent plot, the organization’s threat was sufficient to warrant the risk to US troops, the officials said.
A senior defense official told CNN that the Yemen raid is part of a new strategy for dealing with AQAP. The military has expanded authorities to go beyond the drone strikes it’s been carrying out for several years to conduct missions on the ground to seize intelligence and possibly capture or kill AQAP operatives. AQAP is of particular concern because it has bomb makers who have worked to make non-metallic explosive devices that can get past airport detection systems and has demonstrated an ability to successfully attack the West.
The Special Operations team ran into unexpected opposition and a fierce firefight. Part of the after-action review will try to assess if the mission was compromised in any fashion. One official emphasized that whether it was compromised simply isn’t known at this point.
Special Operations forces generally keep a target under surveillance for days before they move against it, so a key question is how the military didn’t know ahead of time about the level of opposition they encountered at the site in Yemen.
Another key question is why the military proceeded with the mission even after there were problems early in the raid. The Trump administration and former Obama officials have traded blame over who was responsible for approving the operation.
There is significant opposition inside the Defense Department to releasing too much detail about the raid for fear of jeopardizing future missions and giving any hints about precisely how the SEALs came under withering fire.
“The intelligence gleaned in this raid, along with action to take out several AQAP operatives, continues the coalition’s effort to diminish the capability of AQAP in Yemen,” the official said.
Another official indicated that the intelligence recovered included details on whom AQAP is targeting and its training techniques, which can be indicators of future missions. “We got a stack of stuff,” the official said.
An initial effort to release information took an embarrassing turn when US Central Command, in an attempt to prove new information was discovered, released excerpts of terror training video scooped up in the mission that turned out to have been available online for years already. The video was quickly removed and the planned video release cancelled.
The analysis of the material gathered remains ongoing and there is no final assessment yet on the precise intelligence value of what was gathered, two other administration officials emphasized.
They cautioned that some of the intelligence may indirectly lead them to other targets even months from now, so a final conclusion on the raid’s value is difficult to determine.
All of the officials CNN spoke with broadly sketched out the same scenario: A large amount of intelligence and data was gathered in the raid, even as the major firefight broke out.
“That intelligence can possibly be used to conduct further strikes or raids to inhibit AQAP,” one official told CNN. The intelligence assessment of the information gathered is ongoing but “the quantity and quality of the information is high,” the official said.
The officials dispute an NBC News report that declared the raid had yet to yield any actionable intelligence. The evaluation has not been completed, the sources said, and it would be unfair to make such a conclusion at this point. Officials do believe valuable information has been gained, according to the sources.
There is special sensitivity in this matter because of public statements by the father of the fallen Navy SEAL, who is questioning the raid. Bill Owens called for an investigation into his son’s death in a news story published Sunday.
“I want an investigation,” Owens told The Miami Herald. “The government owes my son an investigation.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.