Within days of taking office, President Donald Trump, who had campaigned on killing the families of alleged terrorists — and essentially doing the opposite of whatever President Barack Obama had done — ordered US commandos to carry out an early-morning raid in Yemen that had been vetoed by his predecessor.
“Almost everything went wrong,” one US official told NBC News. The attack, intended to take out a suspected group of al-Qaeda militants, began with a botched landing and ended with a Navy Seal dead. An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and the daughter of an extremist preacher who was assassinated-by-drone in the Obama years, was also killed, as were more than a dozen others.
Civilians were “likely killed,” the US military conceded.
Since 2017, the US has admitted to killing between 4 to 12 civilians, although the real number could be as high as 154 — and 86, at a minimum — according to a new report, “Eroding Transparency,” from the monitoring group Airwars. A disproportionate number of those killed died as a result of on-the-ground raids ordered by the Trump administration, the group found: despite accounting for less than 3% of US actions documented by Airwars, such attacks accounted for some 40% of all civilian casualties.
In a statement, US Central Command, which oversees operations in Yemen, told Business Insider it is “reviewing information provided by Airwars.”
Trump is not the first president to bring the US-led war on terror to Yemen — American cluster bombs killed 35 women and children during Obama’s presidency — but data collected by Airwars and the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggest he is a more prolific bombardier than his predecessor.
In 2017, the US admitted to carrying out 133 attacks in Yemen, the vast majority airstrikes, compared to just 150 confirmed strikes between all of 2002 and 2017. Clandestine strikes by the Central Intelligence Agency mean all figures come with an asterisk, but there was undeniable intensity to the attacks ordered in Trump’s first year, most likely a product of a new president and his “considerable loosening of the rules of engagement,” Airwars said in its report
US strikes in Yemen have dropped off since then, to less than 40 in 2019 to less than 20 thus far this year. Does that mean, then, that President Trump is backing up his rhetoric against “forever wars” with measurable actions?
Not so fast, Chris Woods, director of Airwars, told Business Insider. It may just be that, from the perspective of US national security officials, record-breaking airstrikes before have lessened the need for more airstrikes now. There is, also, a pandemic.
At the same time, the US government, under Trump, is being less transparent about who and what is bombing. In response to criticism of its campaign of extrajudicial killings, the Obama administration published, just hours before Trump’s inauguration, a report detailing both the number of US airstrikes abroad and the reported civilian harm they caused. The current administration has never published such a report since, transparency only coming in piecemeal form as a result of congressional action demanding it.
In 2019, the Department of Defense stopped even saying how many airstrikes it had carried out in Yemen, granted a lack of transparency usually reserved for the CIA.
Donald Trump’s wars represent a paradox,” Woods said. “While currently we’re seeing some of the lowest numbers of US airstrikes in years across major theaters, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria … this is a pretty recent phenomenon. Earlier on in his presidency, we saw record numbers of both airstrikes and reported civilian harm in multiple theaters, fueled by Trump’s stated intent to ‘take the gloves off’ against terror groups.”
The spread of COVID-19 has also meant the slowing, if not freezing, of conflicts elsewhere, Woods said. In Somalia, for example, the Trump administration was on pace, right as the pandemic hit, to more than double last year’s record-breaking number of airstrikes. “Assad regime, Russian and Turkish strikes in Syria have all dropped steeply,” he noted.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has called for ending US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, which has killed far more civilians — thousands each year, and 100,000 since 2015 — than direct US counter-terrorism operations. Democrats in Congress, joined by a few Republicans, have also pressed for an end to that support, which began under Obama and increased under Trump.
But there is a bipartisan consensus on counter-terrorism. A Senate resolution offered by US Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, called for a prohibition on US support for the Saudi war in Yemen but carved out an exemption for direct US airstrikes on al-Qaeda and related extremists.
In 2019, the Trump administration targeted and killed an individual, Jamal al-Badawi, who a US grand jury indicted for his alleged role in planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole which had been stationed at the port in Aden, Yemen, killing 17 US sailors.
On Twitter, the US president celebrated the strike.
Al-Badawi purportedly left extremism behind more than a decade ago; no reports since had indicated he had rejoined a terrorist organization, and there is no evidence that attempts were made to arrest him before he was assinated.
“A targeted attack on a reportedly reformed al-Qaeda fighter would seem to constitute new and troubling territory for the US armed drone program,” Airwars’ report states, potentially violating the 2001 congressional authorization for the use of force against perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That is only one aspect of US involvement in Yemen that may violate the law. As The New York Times reported in September, the State Department in 2016 determined that “American officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners.”
As with the global war on terror, those sales have only increased since the US experienced regime change.