Donald Trump kicked off his second weekend as President of the United States with an immigration ban that was - for all intents and purposes - ruled illegal by four Federal Judges, resulted in mass protests and ended up with the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Trump also signed an Executive Order restructuring the National Security Council, placing white nationalist and self-proclaimed state-destroying Leninist Steve Bannon at the table while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. These events have been fairly widely covered, they have caused concern and they continue to be real issues that test the limits of the Constitution and how far into authoritarianism the United States is going to go.
While this was taking place, President Trump signed off on his first covert operation involving the well-known Tier One force known commonly as SEAL Team Six. This of course, is the elite unit that killed Osama bin Laden and was used rather frequently by the Obama administration. Along with the Army’s Delta Force, SEAL Team Six is, as the phrase goes, the tip of the spear.
Let me get this disclaimer out of the way. I don’t consider myself an expert on the matters of Special Operations Forces. I did not serve and I cannot speak for operators. I am an average civilian and merely an observer, someone who studies Special Operations in my free time and often writes fiction involving them. Thus, of all the madness and chaos wrought by the Trump administration thus far - up to and including my own interest in the Russia story - this is the incident that has moved me enough to pontificate.
What we first learned about the raid in Yemen was that a SEAL was tragically killed in action. We were told that Intel was gathered and a force of Al-Qaeda fighters was killed but there were no civilian casualties. Later we learned something quite different. Not only was a SEAL killed, but three others were wounded in the firefight, and three were injured when a V-22 Osprey crash-landed. That aircraft had to be destroyed. Fourteen Al-Qaeda fighters were killed along with a civilian count of what’s been reported from 30 to as high as 59.
There are immediate questions surrounding this operation and how it went south, and in such a tragic fashion. But those questions were only highlighted greater when NBC News released a damning account of the raid and reported on the death of Nawar Anwar al-Awlaki, an 8-year-old girl and American citizen.
Nawar Anwar al-Awlaki is the daughter of infamous cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed in a 2011 drone strike. Although an American citizen, the elder al-Awlaki was said to be a top recruiter for al-Qaeda. Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen, yes. But he was a terrorist and traitor and continues to inspire terrorists. You aren’t going to find much sympathy from me regarding his fate. However, there are certainly questions that surround the death of his 16-year-old son two weeks later, and now, the death of his 8-year-old daughter - both American citizens. The death of the son was cited as more or less, “wrong place, wrong time” as the Pentagon has stated the target of that strike was Ibrahim al-Banna and the son happened to be there.
This past weekend was the first raid involving Special Operations Forces approved by President Trump. There were some reports stating that planning for the raid began during the Obama administration, but NBC reports it was not a holdover from the Obama administration.
With the dust settling, we’re looking at high civilians casualties ― including women and children. It has been reported that some of the women were combatants. We’re also looking at one SEAL killed in action, multiple wounded and the total loss of a $72 million dollar aircraft. It’s not clear what the objective was, nor whether any real intelligence was gathered or any high value targets were engaged. The San Diego Union-Tribune and a few other outlets reported the mission targeted the al-Dhahab family, said to be allies of al-Qaeda, but also the in-laws of al-Awlaki. So that raises the question, was this a mission just to wipe out the remaining al-Awlakis?
This is troubling because during the campaign, Trump promised to kill terrorists and their families. Given the number of dead civilians being between 30 and 59, but the death of an 8-year-old girl is confirmed, it would seem as though Trump was serious and literal.
Like I said, I’m no expert, but from 10,000 feet, this looks like a really bad call on Trump’s part. The first thing that came to my mind as more information poured in was Eagle Claw, the ill-fated first mission of Delta Force that was intended to rescue the hostages at the Iranian embassy in 1980.
NBC quoted Nawar’s grandfather’s reports from the camp, saying: “They [the SEALs] entered another house and killed everybody in it, including all the women. They burned the house. There is an assumption there was a woman [in the house] from Saudi Arabia who was with al Qaeda. All we know is that she was a children’s teacher.”
Tragically, according to the grandfather’s account, it sounds like Nawar was another case of “wrong place, wrong time.”
Now, I’m not going to take the word of al-Awlaki at face value of course, but it just adds to the confusion surrounding the operation.
I’m also not condemning or blaming the SEALs for anything or at all. They are professionals and carry out their orders, plus we don’t know for certain how the events unfolded. But I can’t say the same for the President.
Given the confusion and the high cost of the operation and no clearly definitive objective or goal, there are a number of questions the Trump administration needs to address surrounding this operation.
First and foremost, given Trump’s very public distrust and rocky relationship with the Intelligence Community, who delivered the Intel? Did it come from the CIA? Did it come from JSOC or another agency? Did Trump trust the source? If the raid was first planned by the Obama administration, was the most up-to-date intelligence provided to make the most informed decision? Did Trump - who skipped daily briefings during the transition - understand what was happening?
Who advised the raid be carried out? Where did General Flynn and General Mattis stand on the raid? What about General Dunford? Was there Intelligence about the number of potential armed hostiles? What about the children? Did the SEALs know there were women and children at the target location? Were the SEALs ordered to carry out a full kill mission? These kind of raids have been fairly routine in the past decade, did the SEALs also have the most recent information they needed before they embarked?
Furthermore, what was Steve Bannon’s role in the decision-making process? A highly-controversial figure and someone who is openly out to, in his own words “destroy the state,” did he advise Trump to order the raid? Why? What Intelligence and experience does Bannon have that would give him the wherewithal to advise such a high-risk raid?
President Obama often touted the success of the Special Ops raids and missions. Was Bannon suggesting using SEAL Team Six as a way for Trump to flex his muscles? Or were they used just tools used in a crusade?
Again, I’m not an expert, just an observer. But if Steve Bannon is going to be a principal attendee of the National Security Council, especially over the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, these are serious issues that need to be addressed. This also highlights the dire need for the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to be part of the National Security Council.
The fact that this came on the same weekend as the “Muslim ban” is also troubling from a symbolic and optical standpoint. NBC also featured a quote from Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security.
“The perception will be that it’s not enough to kill al-Awlaki — that the U.S. had to kill the entire family,” she said.
In just one weekend, Trump has emboldened the enemy both at home and abroad. This is indeed not making us safe. This is doing the exact opposite.
The SEAL killed in action was identified as Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens from Peoria, Illinois. He enlisted in 1998, earning multiple awards and decorations, he twice earned the bronze star with a combat “V” for valor and heroic service.