More than two years after a multi-sided civil war erupted in Yemen that allowed al-Qaida's local franchise to amass power and seize territory, President Donald Trump has told the Pentagon to conduct 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The willingness to expand counter-terrorism operations inside war-torn Yemen is another signal that Trump is more willing to defer to military commanders on national security policy than was President Barack 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 past week, armed drones and warplanes conducted more than 30 airstrikes against suspected al-Qaida positions in three Yemeni provinces. They were 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-Qaida militants and Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens.
The airstrikes are expected to continue into the coming week. Trump is also considering giving more power to U.S. military commanders to conduct operations in Yemen, including ground attacks.
The militant group is considered by intelligence officials to be al-Qaida'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 flying 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity said the information on targeting al-Qaida in Yemen more aggressively was presented to the Obama administration in its last month in office, but was 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 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 said. "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, while Obama was criticized for rejecting 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 Abed Rabbo 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, Sanaa.
The Obama administration closed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa 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-Qaida.
With a relative free hand to operate in Yemen, al-Qaida has flourished in the power vacuum, looting banks and raising millions of dollars by extorting companies, and imposing taxes and export duties.
In 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 TV director from the country's Taizz governorate.
(Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington and special correspondent Zaid al-Alayaa in Sana contributed to this report.)
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