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  April 3, 2017

In Yemen, Could Growing U.S. Role Lead to Syria-Style Proxy War?

In part one of our interview on expanded U.S. military efforts in Yemen, independent journalist Iona Craig analyzes the Trump administration's escalation of drone strikes and its increasing support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign.
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Iona Craig is a multi-award-winning independent journalist who has been covering Yemen for over six years. She was previously based in Sana'a from 2010 to 2015 as The Times (of London) Yemen correspondent. Her most recent work has appeared on The Intercept following her latest reporting trip to the country in February.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.

We've been looking at the expanding U.S. role in Yemen, and journalist Iona Craig is someone who knows of this first hand. She recently traveled to the site of a U.S. raid that killed 25 civilians in January. And her reporting challenged the Trump administration claims that this raid was a success that yielded valuable intelligence. And Iona is still with us to discuss what she found.

Iona, welcome.

IONA CRAIG: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: Let's talk about this raid in January. The dominant narrative that we heard in the Western media here, was that put forth by the Trump Administration, that it was a highly successful raid, gaining valuable intelligence. That's what President Trump said.

You went to the village, spoke to the survivors, and found something quite different. Can you explain?

IONA CRAIG: Yeah, I happened to be in Yemen when the raid happened, and of course, I, like everybody else, heard this coming out of the White House that this was a highly successful raid. And it was immediately clear, even though I was some distance away from where it happened, that something had gone terribly wrong. And that there was a significant number of civilian casualties.

And certainly when I arrived there, it was quite clear that the entire village had been severely damaged. And in fact, bombed, or strafed by helicopter gunship fire, and then hearing the stories from the locals, yeah, it was, in fact, quite the opposite: it was a complete disaster.

Because the reason the SEALS had got pinned down so quickly, when they came into the village, was because the locals there, the tribesmen, thought that they were fighting the Houthis, who they had been fighting for more than two years in that area, which was very close to the front line.

So, everybody came running, every man with a weapon -- which was every man in Yemen, anyway, never mind in a state of civil war -- came to defend their village and their homes. Not realizing that initially, they were fighting Americans.

Then because the SEALs got pinned down, the only way to extract themselves was to call in air support, and that basically decimated the entire village, and that was when the mass civilian casualties happened. There were ten children under the age of 13 killed, including an unborn child. A woman who was pregnant was shot in the stomach. She survived, but her baby did not.

And out of that, yes, there were 26 villagers from there who were killed. And not just that, but a month later at the beginning of March, the drones came back, the attack helicopters came back, and the village was bombed and strafed for four nights running. And two more children were killed, and several adults were killed, including some who I met when I visited the village eleven days after the raid. And they really viewed that as a revenge attack, that follow-up attack that the Americans were acting in vengeance, really, for them having killed a Navy SEAL.

What's happened now in that area, is the tribesmen who were essentially fighting on the same side as the Americans against the Houthis, have now not only just been alienated from the American government, and their motivations in this war, but now they themselves want revenge. In a normal tribal custom, they'd normally be looking for compensation for their relatives having been killed. But, certainly when I spoke to all the locals there, it wasn't compensation they were after, it was revenge, and it was revenge specifically against America.

So, of course, rather than this being highly successful, it appears the American government had great success in just creating more enemies beyond Al Qaeda, who did have a low level presence in that area, it has to be said. But the cost/benefits of carrying out that raid were quite clear that there appears to be very little benefit.

For a huge, very costly, both in terms of lives, and in terms of the Osprey helicopter, of $70 million that was taken down, but also the long-term consequences of building, creating more enemies in amongst the rural population in Yemen.

AARON MATÉ: Has the U.S. explained why it went back and bombed the same village that it already had decimated once?

IONA CRAIG: No. Other than the fact that in over that same period of 36 hours, as you already mentioned, the U.S. carried out more air strikes in Yemen. And it wasn't in the space of 36 hours, rather the whole month, than they had done in the whole of 2016, and sent ... Central Command said at the time, that that was to go against Al Qaeda, and take down AQAP's capacity to carry out attacks against America.

Which is kind of the generic thing we hear anyway, when drone strikes and air strikes are used in Yemen.

AARON MATÉ: And if, as you suggest, the Al Qaeda members who might have been there, if they were there, were lower level. What does that say to you about the level of intelligence that was obtained? This was the key victory that President Trump said resulted from this raid, which is that the U.S. gained all this valuable intelligence that could help them with future operations, and help save lives. What do you make of that?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think there are two points to that, really. Firstly is the video that the Pentagon put out shortly after the raid, supposedly as an example of the great intelligence they did acquire. And they quickly had to take it down when it was revealed that that was, in fact, ten years old, that video, and was widely available on the Internet. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen isn't even ten years old. So, it predated their existence even.

Secondly, where the low level AQAP militants were, the house that they had been using, seemingly to move between the front lines and fighting, and they were using it basically as a guesthouse. The U.S. Navy SEALs never even entered that building. Because they got pinned down so early on, they actually hit it with air and drone strikes and it was completely destroyed before the SEALs could even get to it.

So, of course, that would be the place where the best, or the most intelligence-gathering opportunity would be. From whether it be cell phones, potentially laptops, if they had them there, but, yes, they definitely didn't get into that building. I tried to find out from the local residents which buildings did they get into. There were essentially two households where the gunfight erupted at the bottom of the village, on low ground that was separate to the rest of the village.

And the other buildings, that they couldn't tell me whether the Navy SEALs did get into those buildings or not. It was extremely dark and very chaotic, and nobody really knew what was going on. Probably the Navy SEALs more than anyone else, because they would've had night vision goggles, which obviously the tribesmen wouldn't have done. So, they couldn't tell me definitely yes or no, whether they had got into any buildings at all, to get, whether it be cell phones, laptops, et cetera.

But yeah, probably the... if there was any prize in intelligence to be got, it would have been from that house. Though they were low-level militants, and that house was completely destroyed before the SEALs could get to it.

AARON MATÉ: Iona Craig, thank you for joining us, and for more on the U.S. role in Yemen. Check out Part 1 of this interview.

I'm Aaron Maté for The Real News. Thanks for joining us.




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