Small Wars Journal

The Yemen Raid: Uncertain Implications for US Counterterrorism Policy and Decision-making

The Yemen Raid: Uncertain Implications for US Counterterrorism Policy and Decision-making by Nicole Magney, Georgetown Security Studies Review

The United States has been involved in counterterrorism (CT) efforts in Yemen for years, but the special operations raid on an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound on January 29 in Al-Bayda governorate indicates a significant shift in the US CT approach in the country. The raid demonstrates the serious risks associated with conducting such a mission with limited on-the-ground intelligence and cooperation with Yemeni forces. Members of the Trump administration continue to laud the raid as “absolutely a success” despite the loss of a Navy SEAL, the wounding of three others, killing of dozens of civilians, and destruction of a $75 million US aircraft. The administration and military argue that the raid achieved its purpose—to collect key intelligence on AQAP that will “help partner nations deter and prevent future terror attacks in Yemen and across the world.” However, the operation led to public controversy, especially after sources reported that an eight-year-old girl, the daughter of deceased Yemeni-American terrorist Anwar Al Awlaki, was allegedly killed during the operation.

Beyond the on-the-ground consequences, there are concerns about the nature of the decision-making process that led to the Yemen raid, and whether this case is indicative of how the Trump administration will make important CT decisions going forward. The raid has serious implications for CT strategy in Yemen, has already demonstrated counterproductive results, and most importantly, has highlighted the president’s unconventional CT decision-making process.

The raid does not represent a major departure for the United States in terms of national interest. Yemen has long been a country of keen CT focus for the United States. In a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2015, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center emphasized AQAP’s “persistent interest in targeting the US.” As the civil war in Yemen escalated in March 2015, the United States was forced to close its embassy in Sana’a and withdraw roughly 100 special operations forces from the country. Since then, AQAP has continued to exploit the power vacuum created by the civil war to gain influence and create a pseudo-state in the southern portion of the country. Despite a smaller overt presence since 2015, the United States has remained actively involved over the past two years using drones, airstrikes, and special operations advising. However, the raid on January 29 (only the second publicly acknowledged US ground attack in Yemen) signifies a significant shift towards on-the-ground CT responses to AQAP…

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