Trump steps up airstrikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen; more ground raids could follow

More than two years after a multi-sided civil war erupted inside Yemen that allowed Al Qaeda's local franchise to amass power and seize territory, President Trump has directed the Pentagon to embark on a complicated counter-terrorism campaign.

Trump’s decision, just six weeks into his presidency, intends to reverse the largely unchecked expansion across southern Yemen of the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The willingness to expand counter-terrorism operations inside war-torn Yemen was the latest signal that Trump is more willing to defer to military commanders on national security policy than President Obama, who was criticized publicly by three of his four Defense secretaries and privately by uniformed officers for micromanaging the military.

Over two days this week, armed drones and warplanes conducted more than 30 airstrikes against suspected Al Qaeda positions in three Yemeni provinces, marking the first U.S. attacks in the country since an ill-fated Navy SEAL raid in January that killed two dozen civilians, including women and children, Al Qaeda militants and Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens.

The aerial bombardment is expected to continue into the coming week. Trump is also considering granting more latitude to U.S. military commanders to conduct operations in Yemen, including more airstrikes and ground raids.

The militant group is considered by intelligence officials to be Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate because of its repeated attempts to attack American targets, including the bombing attempt aboard a U.S.-bound airliner over Detroit in 2009 and a failed attack on two cargo planes headed to Chicago in 2010. The group also claimed responsibility for the shooting that killed 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.

No specific threats or plots were being tracked in Yemen, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. Rather, he said, the latest strikes were designed to eliminate the Yemeni countryside as a place “where they can plot and execute external attacks."

The U.S. military did not specify why the operation kicked off this week. Targets inside Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, have been under surveillance for months.

U.S. intelligence officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on ongoing operations, said the information on targeting AQAP more aggressively was presented to the Obama administration in their last month in office, but that they deferred to Trump.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the strategy to Trump over dinner in his first week in office. The authority was granted to Gen. Joseph Votel, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, to carry out the Jan. 29 special operations raid and airstrikes on a list of targets.

The delegation of authority could be seen as a way for Trump to insulate himself from responsibility when operations go awry.

In an interview Thursday on Fox News, Trump was asked about the January raid on a remote compound in Yakla village that devolved into the fierce and deadly shootout.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said. “This was something they wanted to do.”

“They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe,” he added. “And they lost Ryan."

Later that day, Trump invited Owens’ widow to his first address to Congress and publicly praised the SEAL as a hero.

James J. Carafano, foreign policy and defense analyst for the right-leaning Heritage Foundation who advised the Trump transition, criticized Obama for micromanaging military decisions but said presidents must be willing to accept accountability.

“You can delegate authority but not responsibility,” he said. “In a sense, you put your personal reputation at risk. So if you delegate authority and then something goes wrong, because you hold the responsibility, the fault comes back on you.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended Trump’s strategy, noting that Trump relies heavily on input from military leaders, whereas Obama was criticized for nixing their proposals.

“He chose these highly qualified individuals because he believes in their expertise and understanding of the issues,” Spicer said of Trump.

The Pentagon said military operations in Yemen are being coordinated with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi's fragile government.

Yemen has been edging toward anarchy since late 2014, when Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis swept in from their homeland in the country's northwest corner to seize the capital, Sana.

Amid the resulting chaos, the Obama administration closed the U.S. embassy in Sana months later and pulled out special operations forces gathering intelligence and launching drone strikes.

When Houthi rebels appeared on the verge of capturing Aden, the country's economic hub, Arab coalition forces, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launched a counterattack in March 2015. By then, the rebels had forced Hadi into exile and controlled much of the country.

Saudi airstrikes, backed by U.S. intelligence and refueling, chiefly targeted the Houthis, not Al Qaeda.

With a relative free hand to operate in Yemen, AQAP has flourished amid the power vacuum, looting banks and raising millions of dollars by extorting companies, imposing taxes and export duties.

Within Yemen, where it is not uncommon to see billboards that read “USA kills Yemenis,” some see U.S. intervention as likely only to make the situation worse.

“What is happening is really and unfortunately painting a dark picture of the coming period in Yemen, which would be protracted insecurity, instability for many years to come,” said Muneer Talal, a 46-year-old TV director from the country’s Taizz governorate.

Over the last two years, the Pentagon sporadically launched drone strikes against AQAP leaders, but has struggled to gain intelligence on the inner workings of the group since the U.S. government pulled out of Yemen.

The Pentagon remained concerned about the group because of its proven ability to export attacks.

“We have a lot of gaps in our understanding of the organization,” a defense official told reporters on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about intelligence. “But it’s clear to us what they’re capable of, what it’s done in the past, and what it continues to clearly telegraph what it would like to do in the future.”

The dearth of information prompted, in part, the rare on-the-ground Navy SEAL raid. The intent of the mission was to collect cellphones, laptops and other equipment containing intelligence, and operatives found phone numbers, contact information and data, U.S. officials have said. The captured data, however, is not informing the current military campaign.

Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington and special correspondent Zaid Ahmed in Sana contributed to this report.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @wjhenn

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