Eight-year-old American girl 'killed in Yemen raid approved by Trump'

Anwar al-Awlaki’s daughter, Nawar, may have been fatally shot in intelligence operation on al-Qaida that left at least 14 people, including a US commando, dead

President Donald Trump personally approved a US commando raid in Yemen that left one elite serviceman dead and may have killed an eight-year-old American girl, the US military has told the Guardian.

At least 14 people died in Sunday’s raid by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which was the subject of a preliminary inquiry to determine if allegations of civilian deaths were sufficiently credible to merit a full investigation.

On Wednesday night, US central command said in a statement that the team conducting the inquiry had already confirmed that civilians were “likely killed” in the raid and that “casualties may include children”. It is continuing to look into whether there “were any still-undetected civilian casualties”.

Col John Thomas, a spokesman for central command, said in the statement: “Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula has a horrifying history of hiding women and children within militant operating areas and terrorist camps, and continuously shows a callous disregard for innocent lives.

“That’s what makes cases like these so especially tragic.”

The operation was launched to gather intelligence on suspected operations by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), according to Thomas. Planning for the raid “started months before”, under Barack Obama’s administration, but was “not previously approved”, he said.

Thomas said he did not know why the prior administration did not authorize the operation, but said the Obama administration had effectively exercised a “pocket veto” over it.

A former official said 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.

An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, according to her family. Nawar, also known as Nora, is the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.

On Tuesday, Thomas strongly denied that US military forces knew the girl was in the compound before launching the operation, or that any of what Central Command said were an “estimated” 14 people ultimately killed in the raid were civilians.

“If we did, we would know now, already, there were civilian casualties,” he said.

In an interview with the Guardian, the girl’s grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, said he did not believe the Americans meant to kill his granddaughter. Nawar, who was staying at the house with her mother, was shot in the neck and died two hours later.

“I don’t think this incident was intentional,” Nasser al-Awlaki said in a phone interview from Yemen.

The elder Awlaki, a former government minister, said the village in which his granddaughter was staying was not an AQAP hotbed, but rather home to her uncles, tribal sheikhs who were actually fighting with the legal government of Yemen, which the ruling Iran-backed Houthi movement ousted in a coup.

Awlaki said the exiled former government was sending arms to his relatives from its southern stronghold in Aden, to combat the Houthis.

“If the Americans assumed that those arms were going to the hands of al-Qaida or something, I don’t know,” Nasser al-Awlaki said. “I cannot understand why the Americans use this big commando strike, which is similar to what happened to Osama bin Laden, in a small village in Yemen.”

At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer stated: “No American citizen will ever be targeted” in counter-terrorism operations, though it was unclear if Spicer was announcing a new policy or was freelancing.

The pre-dawn raid was plagued by trouble from the start. A tilt-rotor MV-22 transporting the commandos experienced a “hard landing” near the target location, and had to be destroyed.

Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed in the raid and three other Navy Seals were wounded. On Wednesday, Trump flew to Dover air force base to pay respects as Owens’ body arrived back in the US for burial.

Trump makes visit to honour US Navy Seal killed in Yemen raid

The defense secretary, James Mattis, in a statement on Monday, said Owens “upheld the noblest standard of military service”.

Thomas said the JSOC mission was to extract information on AQAP from the target location, not to hunt terrorist suspects.

“The objective was not to kill anybody. We’re pretty good at doing that from the air,” Thomas said.

Typically, initial investigations to establish a sufficiently credible allegation of US-caused civilian deaths take approximately two weeks. Without a ground presence in Yemen, military investigators will have to use aerial imagery and other methods to determine whether a formal inquiry is merited.

Trump has instructed Mattis and military planners to present him with options for an intensified campaign against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and what Trump calls “radical Islamic terror”.

US and other western intelligence agencies have long been worried about Yemen, the base for more than a decade of AQAP, one of the most effective and innovative affiliates of the veteran extremist organization. Isis is also present in the country, though has had difficulty making major inroads.

One proposal under discussion, at Central Command and elsewhere, is to designate Yemen a formal battlefield for US forces, alongside Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. That move would permit swifter decision-making, expanded authorities and an intensified pace of operations, rather than one-off raids or drone strikes.

During 2015 and 2016, Pentagon officials sounded warnings to the White House and regional allies, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that the brutal US-backed Saudi air war against the ruling Iran-backed Houthi movement, and the dire humanitarian situation it engendered, was proving to be a distraction from threats like AQAP.

AQAP is one of the few affiliates of al-Qaida with a proven history of trying to strike in the US itself, as well as other targets in the west. The group’s specialist bomb-making skills have long been a concern to US security officials.

In recent years AQAP has exploited the chaos and conflict in Yemen to evolve into a potent local actor able to seize swaths of land, sources of revenue and to make new recruits.

According to a former defense official, the Obama White House was “reluctant” to authorize special operations raids against AQAP targets in its final years, though it permitted drone strikes.

No such reluctance appears to persist in the new administration. When Central Command initially disclosed the raid on Sunday, it signaled that the mission was “one in a series of aggressive moves against terrorist planners in Yemen and worldwide”.

Earlier this week, a Pentagon spokesman claimed the women killed during the raid may have been “fighters” who “ran to pre-established positions as though they had trained to be ready”.

Though both al-Qaida and Isis have made increasing use of female attackers in bomb plots in north Africa and Europe in recent months, there is little evidence that either group has ever deployed women in more traditional combat roles in strongholds within the Middle East.

Nasser al-Awlaki said women did fire on the Americans – not because they were al-Qaida, but because the pre-dawn raid frightened them.

“When the commando unit landed, everybody in the village tried to respond, including women,” Awlaki said.

“Mr Trump, his actions will only make things difficult, whether in America or elsewhere in the world. My message is that there are other ways, really, to solve problems rather than using actions like killing people in Yemen and also banning Muslims from entering the United States.”

Contributors

Spencer Ackerman , Jason Burke and Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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