DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday paid his respects to a U.S. Navy SEAL who died in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen that went wrong, the first military operation authorized by Trump as commander in chief.
Trump traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in an unexpected visit to meet with the family of William “Ryan” Owens, a chief special warfare operator who died in Sunday’s dawn raid.
The remains of the serviceman were sent to Dover, home to the largest U.S. military mortuary. Most of the visit was closed to the media.
The U.S. military said 14 militants were killed in the raid in al Bayda province on a branch of al Qaeda known as AQAP. Medics at the scene, however, said around 30 people, including 10 women and children, were killed.
U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counter-terrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.
White House officials were not immediately available to comment about the officials’ characterization of the raid.
All three officials said “a brutal firefight” took the lives of Owens and at least 15 Yemeni women and children. One of the dead was the eight-year-old daughter of the late militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
Some of the women were firing at the U.S. force, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.
The American elite forces did not seize any militants or take any prisoners offsite but White House spokesman Sean Spicer
said on Wednesday the raid yielded benefits.
“Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil – is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service,” Spicer said.
A senior leader in Yemen’s al Qaeda branch, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, along with other militants, were killed in the gun battle, al Qaeda said.
The U.S. officials said the extremists’ base had been identified as a target before the Obama administration left office on Jan. 20, but then-President Barack Obama held off approving a raid, in part because officials said they were not certain the available intelligence was sufficiently reliable. Also, on-the-ground surveillance of the compound was “minimal, at best,” one of the officials said.
“The decision was made not to make a go decision, but to leave it to the incoming administration, partly in the hope that more and better intelligence could be collected,” that official said.
As Sunday’s firefight intensified, the raiders called in Marine helicopter gunships and Harrier jump jets, and then two MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to extract the SEALs. One of the two suffered engine failure, two of the officials said, and hit the ground so hard that two crew members were injured, and one of the Marine jets had to launch a precision-guided bomb to destroy it.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)