Witnesses to the botched US special forces raid in Yemen that left a Navy commando and several children dead have rebuffed Donald Trump’s account of the “highly successful” mission.
The eight-year-old American daughter of an al-Qaeda propagandist was among those killed in the raid on al-Ghayil village on 29 January – the first authorised by the new US President.
He and his defence chief General James Mattis claimed it “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future” but residents said a targeted building was blown up in air strikes before the material inside could be accessed and the potential target of the mission was not there.
Villagers interviewed by The Intercept investigative website said they were awoken by the sound of gunfire as Navy Seal Team 6 stormed the settlement in the middle of the night.
As commandos were pinned down in a battle that lasted almost an hour, helicopter gunships allegedly bombarded the entire village, razing homes to the ground and killing many of their inhabitants, as well as more than 120 goats, sheep and donkeys.
Five-year-old Sinan al-Ameri saw his mother shot dead from behind as she ran for her life carrying her 18-month-old son. The infant was found alive next to her dead body the following morning.
“She was hit by the plane. The American plane,” Sinan said. “She’s in heaven now.”
The Intercept’s investigation in al-Ghayil concluded that at least 16 women and children died in the raid, where Navy Seal William “Ryan” Owens was killed.
Capt Jeff Davis, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, claimed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had deployed female fighters to defend a “compound”.
“The [female fighters] ran to pre-established positions as if they’d trained to be ready and trained to be combatants and engage with us,” he told a press briefing.
“So, some of the enemy killed in combat are in fact female.”
Witnesses refuted the claim, telling The Intercept the prospect of a woman fighting was shameful in Yemeni culture, although AQAP propaganda channels named at least one woman that “fought [US troops] with her own gun”.
Six other American soldiers were injured and a military aircraft was blown up by US forces after being damaged in a crash landing.
Official statements said the operation aimed to gather “valuable intelligence” on AQAP operations but residents and US special operations officials told The Intercept it was more likely to be the group’s leader Qassim al-Rimi.
He mocked Mr Trump in a statement issued days after the raid, which centred on the homes of Sheikh Abdulraouf al-Dhahab and Abdallah al-Ameri.
Al-Dhahab has family ties to AQAP, with American propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki – who was killed in a 2011 drone strike - marrying his sister.
Their eight-year-old daughter, Nawar, was among the children shot dead during the raid.
One resident said al-Ameri’s home was used as a makeshift guest house by passing al-Qaeda militants but that as it was obliterated in air strikes, the possibility of retrieving laptops or any other intelligence material was destroyed.
Capt Davis claimed the raid would help the US “gain a deeper insight into the group’s planning to help prevent terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in the United States and our coalition-partner nations”.
He added that 14 “al-Qaeda operatives” were killed in the assault on what he described as a “compound”, although photos of al-Ghayil show no fortified or walled-off buildings.
Mr Trump was not in the situation room during the operation and signed it off over dinner with military commanders, according to his White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who called it a “very, very well thought-out and executed effort”.
US military officials previously said "almost everything went wrong" with the raid, which was allegedly carried out without sufficient intelligence, ground support or back-up.
No information on seized material has been released, with a video posted online by the US Central Command on 3 February emerging to be 10 years old.
AQAP has capitalised on the Yemeni civil war to expand its areas of control in an ongoing Islamist insurgency, as well as being linked to foreign terror plots including the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon declined to comment on details in The Intercept report, referring The Independent to previous statements.
The Department of Defense is conducting three separate reviews into the raid – one on civilian casualties, one on the death of Chief Petty Officer Owens and one on the loss of the Osprey aircraft.
It has been followed by a series of “precision” air strikes in the region this month, which local Yemenis claim have killed more civilians.