An after-action review of the deadly SEAL Team 6 raid of a terrorist compound in Yemen shows that the Jan. 29 mission was not compromised, but it also concludes that the enemy was more ready to fight than expected and that women in one building surprised the commandos by firing weapons.
A house for family members within the terrorist compound was deemed not a major concern, based on an assumption that civilians would not likely fight, a U.S. military source told The Washington Times.
The SEAL team had hoped to collect more digital intelligence data, but a fierce firefight prevented a fuller search-and-seizure operation.
Special operations forces recently had conducted only one known counterterrorism ground raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. Experience about what exactly to expect from AQAP fighters was lacking.
In the days after the mission, during which Navy Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed and a V-22 Osprey destroyed, press reports said fighters could be heard on a communications net, or “chatter,” saying they knew the SEALs were coming.
But the military source said that U.S. Central Command’s official review found no evidence of any such communication coming out of or going into the targeted compound.
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“Whether or not someone heard something from the air, there’s no reason for us to believe anyone in the compound was aware or heard those kinds of things,” said the source. “The team was on the ground for some amount of time before the firefight started.”
Using a hypothetical, the military source said that, if sentry patrols around a compound do not suddenly get ready for battle, then “we have a sense we have not been detected.”
“It erupted very quickly at a time you might expect it to when some members of the team had been on the ground for some amount of time,” the source said. “What we know is we have no indication of any prior knowledge or comprise in advance.”
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he personally received and discussed the after-action results and lessons-learned assessment submitted by his staff and commanders. Based on the findings, he testified, he sees no reason to order a more formal investigation.
The mission became instantly controversial, with the mainstream news media depicting the first counterterrorism raid of the Trump administration as fundamentally flawed.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican and a persistent Trump critic, labeled the mission a “failure.”
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer called it a “success” because of the seized intelligence on AQAP, which is dedicated to attacking the U.S. homeland. The terrorist group has attracted Sunni Muslim members by capitalizing on the civil war in Yemen, which is pitting Shiite rebels against the government.
The U.S. military source told The Times that the nighttime insertion did not lose the element of surprise.
But, the source added: “At a certain point, this becomes more kinetic than we expected. But that doesn’t mean there was a compromise. Perhaps the folks in the compound were more trained, prepared for a fight, not this fight, but a fight. Maybe they were more ready to fight, and they had established firing positions perhaps more than we would have expected.”
“Not compromised,” the source said, “but at a state of preparedness to enter into a fight that was probably unanticipated. When you talk about lessons learned, that is one of them. Maybe for any future such things that might occur in Yemen, we’ll probably put that into our knowledge and assumptions of what you might expect.”
‘I am responsible for this mission’
Intelligence showed that family members resided in specific units in the terrorist compound.
Said the U.S. military source: “You make a planning assumption, and a planning assumption might be you can bypass or just give one quick check and not expect to receive any resistance from that location In a case like this, women picked up guns and started firing. That assumption may have been a little too optimistic on those locations.”
The source chalked up the “too optimistic” assumption as not an intelligence gap but a lack of experience in conducting ground raids against AQAP in Yemen.
“That’s kind of getting onto enemy techniques, tactics and procedures,” the source said. “That goes beyond intelligence I think that is almost battlefield experience. How is it that they are going to respond? And we don’t have a lot in Yemen of that kind of experience because we haven’t done many of these raids. Intelligence sort of implies, a connotation of, the typical that you bring to it.”
On seizing documents and digital data on AQAP, the source said: “Did we get everything in a perfect scenario, everything that we would have hoped for? No, because the firefight time on the ground was more limited than a perfect world it would have been. Yes, there was information and it is still being exploited and it is being used to fill out our understanding of their network, how they work, their training.
“It is very hard to qualify the intelligence at any one point,” the source said. “Sometimes you don’t know until you get other sources of intelligence that you then start connecting dots. We think we’ve got, certainly, because of the information from that objective, a significant better understanding of AQAP.”
Gen. Votel, a career special operations officer and former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, presented his first detailed public comments on the raid at the March 9 Senate hearing.
“First and foremost, I am responsible for this mission,” the general said. “I am the CentCom commander, and I am responsible for what’s done in my region and what’s 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, lost an expensive aircraft. We did gain some valuable information that will be helpful for us.”
Gen. Votel presided over a secure video teleconference to complete the after-action review with staff and commanders.
He testified that he searched for “information gaps” or “conflicting information” from raid participants or “incompetence or poor decision making or bad judgment.”
“I was satisfied that none of those indicators that I identified to you were present,” he told senators. “I think we had a good understanding of exactly what happened on [the] objective and we’ve 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.”
Amnesty International and Chief Owens’ father had called for an investigation.
At the hearing, Mr. McCain again criticized the mission as “not a success,” noting the deaths of women and children and the failure to capture anyone.
“When heavy fire was encountered, why the decision was made to continue the mission I still don’t think this committee has an answer to that question,” the chairman said.
The U.S. military source told The Times that there were contingencies for a possible firefight, including calling in airstrikes, which happened.
“If you’re going to have a dangerous operation and someone may shoot at you, you have plans for how you’re going to respond to it, not necessarily how you’re going to halt the operation,” the source said.
The last known U.S. ground raid on a target in Yemen happened in December 2014 when American commandos stormed a village to free two hostages, an American photojournalist and a South African teacher. AQAP captors killed both men during the failed rescue attempt.
President Obama approved the SEAL Team 6 operation. Mr. Trump approved the Jan. 29 raid, which was first proposed by Central Command during the Obama administration.