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Yemen: Jeremy Scahill & Advocates Question “Success” of Trump Raid That Killed 24 Civilians

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Questions are mounting about the first covert counterterrorism operation approved by President Donald Trump. Authorities say it was a success. The Pentagon now acknowledges that civilians were killed Sunday when members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 joined with commandos from the United Arab Emirates to raid a Yemeni village where members of al-Qaeda were said to live. But human rights groups say up to 24 civilians were killed, including a newborn baby and an American 8-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The U.S. suffered one fatality: William “Ryan” Owens, a veteran member of SEAL Team 6. We get response from Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, who has extensively covered Yemen; Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Baraa Shiban, the Yemen project coordinator and caseworker with Reprieve.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Yemen and growing questions about the first covert counterterrorism operation approved by President Donald Trump. The Pentagon now acknowledges civilians were killed Sunday when members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 joined with commandos from the United Arab Emirates to raid a Yemeni village where members of al-Qaeda were said to live. Initially, the Pentagon said there were no civilian casualties, but according to the British human rights group Reprieve, up to 24 civilians died.

The dead included a newborn baby and an American 8-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. She’s the second child of Anwar al-Awlaki to be killed by the United States in Yemen, after her brother, 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The U.S. suffered one fatality: William “Ryan” Owens, a veteran member of SEAL Team 6. Several other Navy SEALs were injured in a fierce firefight. Over a dozen members of al-Qaeda reportedly died, as well. And the U.S. lost a $75 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which crashed during landing.

Plans for the raid began months ago under President Obama. Reuters reports some U.S. military officials say Trump approved the mission without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations. Another official told The New York Times, quote, “Almost everything went wrong.” But as recently as Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed the raid a success.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: This was a very, very well-thought-out and executed effort.

REPORTER: Where was the president the night of the raid? How did he learn about Chief Owens’s death? And do you still stand by your characterization that it was successful?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: The president was here in the residence. He was kept in touch with his national security staff. Secretary Mattis and others had kept him updated on both the raid and the death of Chief Owens, as well as the four other individuals that were injured. So, he was kept apprised of the situation throughout the evening. And again, I think—I would go back to what I said yesterday. It’s hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life or people injured. But I think when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life here in America and against our people and our institutions, and probably throughout the world, in terms of what some of these individuals could have done, I think it is—it is—it is a successful operation by—by all standards.

AMY GOODMAN: All this comes as thousands of Yemeni Americans and their supporters rallied Thursday in Brooklyn to protest Trump’s executive order banning entry to travelers from Yemen and six other Muslim-majority nations.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. In London, Baraa Shiban is Yemen project coordinator for Reprieve. He has spoken with residents of the village of Yakla that was raided. Here in New York, Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, represents current and former Guantánamo prisoners. And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream, Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, host of the new weekly podcast, Intercepted. He’s the author of The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program. His most recent article, “Former Senior FBI Counterterrorism Agent Slams Trump on Torture and Muslim Ban.”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Jeremy, let us start with you. You’ve been to Yemen several times. You know the Awlaki family. Can you talk about what you understand took place?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, let’s begin with what we understand about how Trump signed off on this covert mission. We understand that in addition to some of his—some military officials, and of course conferring with General James Mattis, that Trump made the decision to greenlight this Navy SEAL raid over dinner with people like Steve Bannon, his white supremacist top adviser, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who has absolutely no experience with these kinds of activities.

And what’s interesting, before we get to the details of the raid, is that Sean Spicer and the Trump administration tried to imply that the Obama administration and that President Obama himself had greenlit this operation before leaving office and that they were just waiting for a moonless night so that they could have the cover of darkness to go in. But a former senior official in the Obama administration, Colin Kahl, is saying that that’s false and that the president—the former president, Obama, had not actually signed off on this specific raid, but that they had signed off on some of the parameters that the Department of Defense was going to operate under if this raid went ahead, and that the Obama administration viewed this potential raid as an escalation of the U.S. war in Yemen, and that they wanted to defer to the incoming administration, the Trump administration.

Now, let’s take that with a grain of salt. The Obama administration mercilessly pounded Yemen with bombs since December of 2009, when they launched a cluster bomb attack that killed three dozen women and children in the village of al-Majalah, then repeatedly drone struck Yemen, and then, more recently, provided the Saudis with cluster bombs and other munitions, aircraft, to engage in their total destruction, scorched-earth campaign inside of Yemen, and also refueling the planes that the Saudis have been using to pummel Yemen. While Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, was condemning the excesses of the Saudis in Yemen, the United States was, of course, continuing to support the Saudi campaign there.

Now, as it relates to this specific raid, we understand that the official story is that the Navy SEALs were being sent in to target senior al-Qaeda people, that they were going to snatch phones and computers and access this valuable intel. And, in fact, we have to remember that, almost always, the initial official responses—and it can go on for days and weeks or months—is either full of half-truths or outright lies. The initial statement on this was that it was this epically successful raid, that no civilians were killed. Yes, a Navy SEAL was killed in a gun battle, but it was worth it to protect the United States and our security, because they obtained all this valuable intel.

Now, in answering that question, we’re also going to address how it was that this 8-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was in this compound at the same time. Who was Nawar al-Awlaki? Well, she was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki from his third wife, so she was the half-brother [sic] of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American citizen—

AMY GOODMAN: Half-sister.

JEREMY SCAHILL: —who was—sorry, the half-sister of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American citizen who was killed in a drone strike as he had dinner with his teenage cousin and others in October of 2011. Awlaki had four wives, and this was his third wife. That marriage was a tribally arranged marriage between Anwar al-Awlaki and an influential tribal family, the Dhahab family.

Why do I bring up this minutiae that seems like it would be irrelevant? Well, among the people that were killed in this Navy SEAL raid were two brothers, and they were Anwar al-Awlaki’s brother-in-laws, who had helped Anwar al-Awlaki escape the first known attempted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki back in 2011. And they did so by creating a dust circle in the desert with a number of vehicles and then spread out in different directions while Awlaki was in one of the vehicles, and Awlaki escaped. But so, you know, these guys had been on the U.S. radar for some time, but the idea that they were senior figures within al-Qaeda is just a joke, and a sick one at that, to anyone who actually knows about the inner workings and the structure of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And so, this was—I understand, from my sources on the ground in Yemen, who know the tribal structure well, is that these were low-level foot soldiers, basically, for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And let’s remember that AQAP has long since been incapable of organizing any kind of a threat to the United States or U.S. interests, and their primary war right now, ironically, is against the same forces that the Trump administration claims are Iranian proxies—the al-Houthi militias and leaders inside of Yemen. That’s the—those are people that al-Qaeda is fighting against, while the U.S. supports the Saudis to bomb them, al-Qaeda also fighting against the southern forces in Yemen. And so, you know, their primary goal right now is not global jihad; it’s against the Houthis, against the southern forces in Yemen.

Finally, Amy, you know, the U.S. claims—and there was an NBC report that came out last night—that someone had tipped off al-Qaeda people to the fact that this U.S. raid was imminent. Now, I find that a little bit hard to believe that someone is leaking U.S. intelligence to al-Qaeda, although, under this Trump administration, there seems to be a lot of leaks happening. But what they ended up doing was, basically, just destroying the structures where these people were housed. And so, Nawar al-Awlaki, this 8-year-old girl, was there because her mother had returned to her village and to her family after Anwar al-Awlaki was killed. They had been living in Sana’a. So they were there living in their local village. And my understanding from the al-Awlaki family is that Nawar al-Awlaki was—the 8-year-old girl was shot in the neck, but that she could have been potentially saved and that she was left to bleed out.

And, you know, Trump did say, and General Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, they both said, in kind of a despicably celebratory way, that the families of terrorists are fair game and can be killed. And it’s not that Obama’s administration didn’t kill children and women. It’s that they would—they would sort of say, “Oops, we didn’t mean to kill civilians.” They didn’t really explain why they killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, but at—the Obama administration gave the veneer of some remorse about this. Trump’s people say that, by all standards, this is a success. It’s never a success when you have 8-year-old kids and infants being killed, or when you have, you know, Navy SEALs being sent on missions that are not really about the defense of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, it’s been widely reported that Nawar was an American citizen. Was she?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I don’t think that anyone ever took her to a consulate to get a passport. And the law on this, you know, I would defer to Pardiss Kebriaei on this. She was born to an American citizen father. Her mother was not an American citizen, as far as I know. I’m almost 100 percent certain that’s true. She had one parent who was an American citizen. I don’t think Anwar al-Awlaki would have been able to walk into a consulate to get his daughter American citizenship. But, you know, I think that’s a question for the lawyer. She definitely had at least one parent who was an American citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who was killed—you have a lot of context within Navy SEAL Team 6—the significance of this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, these are considered to be the highest-end soldiers, the guys who are sent in to do the—you know, go take down high-value targets. They led the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But, you know, the SEALs are definitely in Camp Trump. You know, there are these pictures that have emerged lately of U.S. military vehicles down near Louisville with—current U.S. military vehicles driving around with Trump signs, Trump flags from the back of the vehicles. And, you know, Trump often would tout the Navy SEALs on the campaign trail more than other military units within the U.S. military. And part of that has to do with the kind of Christian crusader, religious supremacist mentality that permeates that community.

For people who really want to understand the dark side of this, you know, revered force, I recommend reading my colleague Matthew Cole’s excellent series at TheIntercept.com. And, of course, he’s been on this show, as well. But these are the most expensive soldiers in the U.S. arsenal. And it appears that Trump used them for a mission or authorized them for a mission against some very low-level al-Qaeda people whose primary goal right now is fighting against the same people the U.S. claims to be bombing in Yemen. It’s really sick.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Baraa Shiban into this, of Reprieve. Baraa, you’ve been speaking with residents of the village of Yakla that was raided. Tell us what you’ve learned.

BARAA SHIBAN: Thank you very much. What we know happened is in—almost midnight, the Navy SEAL Team 6 landed in a nearby location. And I’m not sure when they said it was a compound. There was nothing such thing. I know the place myself. I’ve been there myself. When a former drone strike happened in 2013, with a group of—I went with a group of reporters and other human rights workers to investigate that drone strike. It’s a small—it’s a small village. You cannot even claim that it’s a—it’s al-Qaeda headquarter or al-Qaeda base. It’s a small village with very limited services. And the people back then were normal villagers. They were just farmers who were working during the day in their farms. So, what we know happened is they landed, and then they didn’t just raid the house of Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab, as the Trump administration seems to claim. Actually, they raided the whole village. And if you’re in the middle of the night and you raid a village, obviously, there are going to be some gun—some gunfire.

And now, I think Jeremy explained the link with Nawar al-Awlaki, but Nawar was not the only child who was killed in this raid. There are 10 children who were killed, six women and eight other villagers. And then we can claim that maybe Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab and his brother were militants or, we could say, combatants. If we exclude them, we are left with two dozen civilians who were killed in this raid. I’m not sure what was the aim of this, of an operation at this scale, especially that Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab is not a senior member of al-Qaeda. His main link towards al-Qaeda was through his elder brothers, Nabil and Tariq al-Dhabab. And I wouldn’t imagine that al-Qaeda would trust Abdul Raouf with such valuable information as the Trump administration or like Sean Spicer seems to be suggesting in his press release.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is it that was expressed most by the people you spoke to in this village, Baraa?

BARAA SHIBAN: At the first time when—and let me go back a little bit. Like in December 2013, people were outraged at the moment and very upset. But, actually, back then, the Yemeni government apologized to those villagers and gave them compensation and promised them that’s not going to happen—that’s not going to happen again. Today, when I spoke to the people, people feel that they have been—they are actually targeted. It’s not a mistake, as the Obama administration claimed, not—or what the Yemeni government has been saying. They feel they have been targeted. This village was hit twice—once, a drone strike on a wedding party, and this time it’s a raid. And no one understands what was the aim of the raid, especially when they see their women and children were being killed.

The one person I spoke to, he said, “We were very terrified.” He had to close his door and told everyone in his family not to leave the house until they realized what’s happening out there. He said, two hours later—and can you imagine, in a small village, really, two hours of constant shooting? He said, “We went out,” and then he—the literal words he used: “bodies everywhere—women, children, everything.” Now, interestingly enough, also, the groom who survived the drone strike on his wedding in December 2013 was killed, along with his son and daughter, in this raid. I’m not sure how can they explain—how can they explain this? I know the area myself. The house that they claim was al-Qaeda base, that’s a two-room story house, very small. There is nothing I would say is much big of a value. If I would claim that Abdul Raouf was the target of the raid—maybe they were trying to get him, to arrest him and get him alive—how can you explain the death of two dozen civilians just to get one person?

AMY GOODMAN: Pardiss Kebriaei, you’re a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi, condemned the raid in a Twitter post as “extrajudicial killings.” What’s your understanding about the legality of what just happened? And your thoughts on how soon into Trump’s presidency this happened?

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: I think the strike or the raid was of questionable legality. There are clearly questions about the legality, about the intelligence, about the process, about the impact, that need to be asked and answered. There have been calls for a briefing on the Hill by members of Congress. There have been calls by other human rights groups for an investigation. There must be an investigation and an explanation of what happened on legal, political and human and security levels. So it’s hard right now to, you know, sort of come to a conclusion about exactly what happened, because the government needs to say more, the administration needs to say more. There needs to be accountability now, given that this was the first raid in Yemen by the Trump administration and given that there are clear signs that this is an administration that wants to escalate the use of raids, the use of drones, the use of war making in Yemen and elsewhere. So there needs to be accountability and a check right now, before we go further.

I would also say, as Jeremy pointed out, there needed to be accountability before. This is—these are authorities that were claimed by the Obama administration, that were continued from the Bush administration and claimed by the Obama administration, a program of killing through drones, through raids, that has been going on for years. And accountability is important not just when you have a constitutional—not just when you have a president like Trump, but, you know, when you have a constitutional law professor like President Obama, as well. And accountability did not really happen, did not happen meaningfully under the former administration, you know, politically, publicly or through the courts. I mean, we’re seeing now, for example, through—with the Muslim ban, how essential the role of the courts is in checking sweeping, ostensibly unlawful, executive power. There were attempts at judicial accountability in the past under the Obama administration with the drone program, and the courts failed to exercise judicial scrutiny at that point. So, it’s critical.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m curious, Baraa Shiban, are you affected by the Muslim ban? You, we are speaking to right now, in London.

BARAA SHIBAN: I think that’s a really good question. Me, myself, right now, I can’t go to visit my Reprieve colleagues in the U.S. That’s effectively what the Muslim ban has done. Not only that, actually, but we in Reprieve have invited before relatives of drone strike victims to the United States, and we have arranged for the meetings to meet and talk to congressmen and senators inside the U.S., so they can talk to each other, basically. We brought Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who is a relative of a drone victim, who was able to sit and meet with congressmen. And, effectively, what we were trying to do in Reprieve is just encourage that dialogue to happen. People need to talk to each other. They need to hear those voices. And, effectively, what the Trump administration has done with this ban is shut down that door of dialogue, to say, “We don’t want to talk to anyone. We’re going to deal with everyone outside the U.S. as aliens, and that’s it.” I’m not sure how this is going to help the security of the United States, when you’re willing not to talk to people anymore. But basically–basically, this is what it’s been doing. And it’s not just me, but actually the thousands of Yemeni people who have their relatives maybe outside at the moment of the ban, now they can’t go back into the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jeremy Scahill, Stephen Bannon was with President Trump when he okayed the raid, apparently. Can you talk about the significance of this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and first lady—as she appears to be now—Ivanka Trump’s husband. Look, the fact is that Steve Bannon is a dangerous, extreme right-wing ideologue. Yes, he is a—you know, a former member of the United States Navy, but his life’s work is promoting fearmongering against immigrants and promoting what I think can rightly be called a white supremacist agenda. And let’s be clear here: Donald Trump’s administration will lie about aerial photos from his inauguration and what they show. You think they’re going to tell the truth about the details of a covert raid in Yemen that killed women and children and got a U.S. Navy SEAL killed? Let’s look at their actual response in the bigger picture.

We learned yesterday that Gina Haspel is going to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was one of the people that ran a CIA black site where prisoners were mercilessly tortured, waterboarded, etc. And she, we understand, was the agent who led the destruction of the CIA torture tapes at the direction of the main torture ringleader, Jose Rodriguez, at the Central Intelligence Agency. That is the person who now is going to be the number two at Donald Trump’s CIA. And Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., and all these other Democrats are up in arms because a Republican was bragging about her being, you know, the first woman to be named to such a high position, and that, in fact, Obama had also named a woman to a high position in the CIA. The objection is not the black site, not the torture, not the destruction of tapes, but that there was gender equality somehow under Obama, and now Trump has picked this woman. I mean, that’s the state where we’re at now in our discussion about these policies. The fact is that Trump’s administration: Islamophobes, billionaires, bigots and torture lovers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, Baraa Shiban of Reprieve in London and Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights. You can go to our website to hear some of the voices from more then a thousand small grocery store owners and workers across New York who went on strike Thursday in the latest protest against President’s Trump immigration order.

When we come back, we’ll speak with a transgender reporter who was just fired from the public radio show Marketplace. Stay with us.

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