Shadow Warrior

Generals May Launch New ISIS Raids Without Trump’s OK

The commander in chief is taking heat—and hearing cheers—for a raid in Yemen that killed a SEAL. But for the next mission, Trump may take himself out of the loop altogether.

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The White House is considering delegating more authority to the Pentagon to greenlight anti-terrorist operations like the SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen that cost the life of a Navy SEAL, multiple U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. It's part of an effort to step up the war on the so-called Islamic State.

President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.

In declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team.

Trump’s subsequent defense of the Yemen raid, and discussion of accelerating other counterterrorist operations, shows his White House will be less risk averse to the possibility of U.S.—or civilian—casualties, unlike the Obama White House, which military officials say was extremely cautious to the point of frustrating some military commanders and counterterrorist operators.

Yet that added authority might give Mattis and senior military officers pause, after Trump blamed military leaders Tuesday for the loss of Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens during the fraught Jan. 28th raid against al Qaeda in Yemen, instead of accepting responsibility for the raid’s outcome as commander in chief.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News interview. “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. And they lost Ryan.”

Owens’s father told the Miami Herald he believes the raid was rushed and unnecessary, and refused to meet Trump at Dover Air Force Base when his son was returned home.

“I can understand people saying that. I’d feel—What’s worse? There’s nothing worse,” Trump said of the father’s reaction. “This was something that they were looking at for a long time... and according to Mattis it was a very successful mission. They got tremendous amounts of information.”

In Trump’s first address to Congress, he saluted Owens’s widow, Carryn, who was there as a guest. Tears streamed down her face as the president hailed the fallen Navy SEAL as “a warrior, and a hero.”

He added that he’d just “reconfirmed” with Mattis that the raid was “highly successful” and “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies."

The amount of information gathered is still a matter of debate, however. NBC News reported Monday that after a month of examining what was captured on the scene, the raid has yielded little intelligence. The White House subsequently disputed that report.

“Missions of this type provide insights into AQAP’s disposition, capability, and intentions—information we otherwise do not have access to,” said Central Command spokesman Maj. Josh T. Jacques on Wednesday.

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Despite the controversy, Trump has signaled that he wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.

The National Security Council spokesman was not immediately able to comment.

Former Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast they’d already streamlined the approvals process for counterterrorism raids, following the failed 2014 mission to rescue U.S. hostages James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Kayla Mueller, who were being held by ISIS in Syria. The hostages were moved shortly before U.S. special operators arrived on the scene.

“Obama gave a lot of leash to commanders in the field—but not on everything,” said one former senior Obama administration official. “It’s all about controlling escalation. Do I want to give someone else the authority to get me deeper into a war?”

The official explained that in some cases, Obama deemed it necessary to push authority down to his commanders, as when he gave the Navy SEALs the green light to shoot their way out of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, though firing on Pakistani troops might have triggered armed conflict with Islamabad.

Obama used to give Mattis pre-delegation authority to act when he was head of Central Command on some issues, but not others, the official said. “Will you delegate authority if an Iranian boat gets close, I can take it out? Most presidents will think carefully about that,” he said. “There’s usually a healthy back-and-forth to come up with the right balance.” The official spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive discussions on approving raids.

Trump officials believe loosening the permissions process can help turn up the heat against ISIS—and counterterrorist-focused agencies like the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are lining up new targets in anticipation of more numerous and more rapid approvals.

One model being considered is pre-delegating authority to Mattis on extremely sensitive operations like hostage rescues; for raids or drone strikes against pre-approved targets, that authority could be pushed much further down the chain of command—all the way down to the three-star general who runs JSOC. If his teams spot a target that’s already on the White House approved high-value target list, the elite force will be able to move into action, informing the national-security apparatus of the operation but not having to wait for permission.

Word of discussions about loosening permissions to strike comes despite criticism that the Jan. 28 raid in central Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was approved so quickly that it was launched without proper planning, and botched when al Qaeda fighters heard the SEALs approaching, kicking off a deadly firefight.

SEAL Owens was killed and six U.S. troops were wounded during the fighting, and the “hard landing” of the would-be medical-evacuation aircraft.

Owens’s father wants the decision process investigated. There are already three Pentagon investigations underway, according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis: the pro-forma investigation into the combat death; another into the loss of an Osprey rescue helicopter that was so damaged that it had to be left behind and destroyed; and another investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties from the raid.

Yemeni officials reported several women and children were killed. That included the 8-year-old daughter of former AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, according to the girl’s grandfather in comments to the AP. (Former AQAP cleric Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, helped inspire followers with his online sermons until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.)

The Yemeni government reacted to the raid with a statement, reiterating “its firm position that any counterterrorism operations carried out in Yemen should continue to be in consultation” with Yemen’s civil-war-embattled government, and include “precautionary measures to prevent civilian casualties.”

Special Operations Commander Gen. Tony Thomas pushed back on the notion that the raid was poorly or hastily planned. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., recently that the raid preparation was “absolutely not” rushed or in any way disorganized.

And the SEAL raiders never lost the element of surprise, two U.S. officials said. But the raiders “didn’t expect the whole town to come out armed and fighting,” said one. Pentagon spokesman Davis said women fighters came out firing from several locations as the SEAL team hit its target, contributing to casualties on both sides.

One U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the raid garnered possibly “the most intelligence ever netted” on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including information that will help U.S. intelligence map the network of AQAP followers and how they operate. Central Command stumbled when trying to prove that, however, by releasing an al Qaeda training video captured by the SEAL task force during the raid—but didn’t realize it had been disseminated by AQAP nine years earlier.

This story was updated to add comment from Central Command.