American Special Operations forces conducted a new ground raid against al-Qaida’s Yemen branch early on Tuesday, killing seven suspected militants, military officials said.
The operation, led by a team of Navy SEALs and supported by an array of Special Operations forces, takes place as the Trump administration intensifies its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, where al-Qaida’s most virulent offshoot is believed to be plotting attacks against the West.
Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump approved an earlier, controversial raid that resulted in the death of one SEAL and a host of civilians, including children. U.S. military aircraft have also launched an intensified air campaign over Yemen, with over 80 air strikes on suspected militant facilities since Trump took office.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the operation, which occurred early on Tuesday local time, targeted a cluster of buildings believed to function as a headquarters for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen’s Marib governorate, some 30 miles north of the spot where the earlier Jan. 29 raid occurred.
The operation, which also included forces from the United Arab Emirates, was launched in part from the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship off the coast of Yemen. It aimed to recover digital and other material that could be used for intelligence purposes, and did not target a specific individual, officials said.
After the U.S. forces descended upon the compound under the cover of darkness, militants began firing at the foreign troops, officials said. As the firefight, reminiscent of the one that killed Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens in January, escalated, an AC-130 gunship was called onto the scene to conduct air strikes. The operation also involved Apache helicopter gunships and drones, according to one defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an operation whose results were still being assessed.
In a statement, U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which overseas operations throughout the Middle East, said the suspected militants were killed “through a combination of small-arms fire and precision airstrikes.”
Davis said there was no indication that militants had advance knowledge of the operation. “They likely weren’t expecting us because it was deep into Yemeni territory,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
Davis said the operation had resulted in modest injuries among the American forces, but declined to give additional details. He said there had been no credible reports of civilian casualties.
The stepped-up campaign in Yemen reflects the urgency that military leaders have felt in addressing AQAP’s ambitions to plan external attacks, and to recover some of the counter-terrorism and intelligence capability they lost after the outbreak of Yemen’s current conflict. By early 2015, the Obama administration had been forced to scrap a long-time on-the-ground operation in Yemen, leaving U.S. officials without access to valuable information about AQAP at a time when the group began to expand its influence across Yemen.
The raid also comes as the White House moves to delegate decision-making for overseas operations to the military. Davis said that Gen. Joseph Votel, the Centcom commander, had approved Tuesday’s operation.
Officials said it was too soon to say whether the raid was successful. They are now examining materials seized by U.S. forces.
Yemen has also become a staging ground for an enhanced partnership between elite U.S. and UAE forces, which have been training Yemeni units and have taken a leading role in combatting AQAP in southern Yemen.
The Trump administration has also been considering providing expanded support to UAE troops in a separate conflict against Houthi rebels in Yemen. UAE and Saudi forces have been waging a war against Houthi elements, who the Gulf nations believe are a proxy for regional rival Iran, in Yemen since 2015.