Air strike on Sana'a in May 2015 Photo Credit: Ibrahem Qasim/Wikipedia
The latest U.S. military raid in Yemen was yet another disaster, resulting in the deaths of at least five civilians and the wounding of six more, according to a human rights group and sources in Yemen interviewed by Reuters. The botched attack follows the Trump administration’s first raid in Yemen in January, a bloody massacre that left up to 25 civilians dead.
In the wake of the new attack, major corporate media outlets have failed to shine light on the reported civilian casualties, instead echoing the unsubstantiated claims of the Pentagon.
In the early morning of May 23, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 quietly launched a raid in the Marib Governorate in central Yemen. The troops were targeting an alleged al-Qaeda compound, and the military says some were wounded in the attack.
Immediately after the raid, major newspapers like the Washington Post ran a newswire from the Associated Press titled “U.S. raid kills 7 al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.” The brief story uncritically repeated the claims of the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command, which characterized the raid as a success in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and said all of those killed had been members of the extremist group.
The AP did not even entertain the possibility of civilian casualties. Most mainstream media outlets were similarly compliant and unskeptical in their reporting.
Meanwhile, the international human rights organization Reprieve was doing reporting of its own, and released a statement May 23 that painted a different story of the incident.
Reprieve spoke with witnesses from al-Jubah, the Yemeni village where the attack took place. The sources personally identified and named five victims of the U.S. raid, who they noted were not members of al-Qaeda. Among the five civilians killed was Nasser al-Adhal, a partially blind 70-year-old. Witnesses told Reprieve that al-Adhal tried to greet the Navy SEALs, and was instead shot.
After al-Adhal was gunned down, according to the witnesses, several other Yemeni villagers became angry and began to argue with the U.S. troops, who subsequently shot and killed four more.
Another four villagers were injured in the U.S. raid, one of them a 69-year-old man.
When al-Qaeda militants heard the Navy SEALs gunshots, the witnesses told Reprieve, they joined in the attack. In the subsequent firefight, two al-Qaeda fighters were killed. Several Navy SEALs were also wounded, and fled via helicopter.
The version of the story reflected in Reprieve’s report contrasts starkly with that of the U.S. military, which denies that five of the seven Yemenis killed were civilians.
In the rights group’s statement, Kate Higham, who leads the assassinations program at Reprieve, commented, “This new flawed raid by President Trump shows the U.S. is not capable of distinguishing a terrorist from an innocent civilian.”
“When even a 70-year-old is shot dead, it is clear these attacks are not targeted or precise,” Higham added. She called on the U.S. to investigate the incident and to “halt all raids and drone strikes before more innocent Yemenis are killed.”
Further Confirmation of Civilian Casualties
Reprieve was not the only organization that reported civilian casualties in the U.S. raid. International news agency Reuters acknowledged that civilians were likely killed in the attack. Eight paragraphs into an article with the otherwise uncritical headline “Seven al Qaeda militants killed in Special Forces raid in Yemen: U.S. military,” Reuters noted that two sources in Yemen’s Marib governorate had reported civilian casualties.
Five members of Yemen’s al-Moradi clan were killed and six more were wounded, all of them civilians, according to Reuters’ sources on the ground.
An Obedient, Uncritical Media
Few media outlets gave credence to Reprieve’s report or Reuters’ findings. CNN did not acknowledge either, but merely echoed Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Davis, who claimed there were "no credible indications of civilian casualties."
Fox News triumphantly declared, “Yemen raid against Al Qaeda was 'deepest' U.S. special ops have gone.” It similarly failed to mention Reprieve’s findings, and uncritically echoed Davis’ claims.
The New York Times was one of the only major news outlets to acknowledge Reprieve’s report. In an article titled “Navy SEALs Kill 7 Militants in Yemen Raid but Suffer Injuries,” the Times mentioned the rights organization’s findings in a lone paragraph — but then immediately wrote them off, citing Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Davis, who said, “We don’t have reason to believe that’s the case.”
Many media outlets, including CBS News, The Hill, Military Times and others, expressed much more interest in the U.S. troops who were wounded in the attack than in the civilian casualties. Ironically, many of these media outlets simultaneously acknowledged the civilian casualties in the January raid in Yemen, yet treated the new attack as if it was a success.
Previous Botched Raid
Trump’s first clandestine operation was also in Yemen and was even more of a disaster.
On January 29, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces launched a raid in southern Yemen. Reflecting on the attack, a senior military official admitted, "Almost everything went wrong."
Up to two-dozen civilians were massacred in the attack. Among those killed was an 8-year-old girl named Nawar al-Awlaki. Nawar (or Nora) was the third member of the al-Awlaki family to be killed by the U.S. In 2011, Nawar’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Anwar was an influential Salafi jihadist propagandist with extensive links to al-Qaeda. He was also a U.S. citizen.
Anwar’s teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike just two weeks later.
In the wake of Trump’s first raid in January, Nasser al-Awlaki, an extended member of the family who served as Yemen's former minister of agriculture, spoke with sources in Yemen. Witnesses recalled that Navy SEALs had killed everyone in a house, including women and children, then set the building on fire.
Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.