Despite President Trump’s claimed antipathy to Mideast wars, he has dramatically escalated U.S. counterterrorism activity in Yemen, far beyond the levels he inherited from Barack Obama, according to a new assessment from a leading counterterrorism watchdog.
A just-released report from Airwars, one of the most persistent researchers of wars waged under a veil of official secrecy, finds that the U.S. military and CIA launched up to 231 air strikes and, to a lesser extent, ground engagements in Yemen from 2017 to 2020.
While the vast spike in attacks on Yemeni targets occurred during Trump’s first year in office, that 231 strike total is enough to nearly tie the 255 such strikes in Yemen during all eight years of Obama’s time in office. It’s the latest indication that Trump’s lethal counterterrorism actions have outpaced Obama’s, despite the widespread perception, encouraged by the president, that Trump disdains endless foreign wars.
Similarly, Airwars assesses that the 2017-2020 Yemen strikes have killed at least 121 civilians. Eight years of Obama’s strikes there, Airwars assesses, killed at least 166 civilians.
“The year 2017 marked the worst year for reported civilian fatalities in Yemen from U.S. actions since concerted military and CIA strikes began in 2009. However, civilian casualty claims from U.S. actions in Yemen are presently at relatively low levels,” Airwars found.
Although drone strikes make up the vast majority of military and CIA strikes in Yemen, Airwars surveys the counterterrorism war in Yemen more comprehensively, including data from the ground that include strikes from AC-130 gunships, manned airstrikes, and ground operations. While ground operations in Yemen, such as a disastrous early 2017 raid that killed a Navy SEAL and Anwar Awlaki’s 8-year old daughter, have amounted to only 3 percent of violent U.S. actions, Airwars director Chris Woods found they accounted for at least 40 percent of total likely civilian deaths.
“We’re less focused on the platform that killed them,” Woods said.
Further precision is complicated by the extensive secrecy that the Trump administration placed on its counterterrorism activity. In 2019, it officially reversed a meager transparency measure Obama belatedly enacted in 2016 that required public reporting on counterterrorism strikes beyond the declared battlefields of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Airwars found a U.S. security apparatus taking advantage of the restored secrecy. According to its report, Airwars found 31 strikes that took place after mid-2019, the last time U.S. Central Command reported conducting any airstrikes. The report assesses that afterward, “covert and clandestine strikes” conducted by the CIA and U.S. special operations forces played an expanded role in Yemen.
“They retreated to the bad old days of secrecy that we saw during the early Obama years and George W. Bush,” said Woods.
Although the military has conducted airstrikes in Yemen consistently for over a decade, CENTCOM represented to Airwars that it does not have a dedicated entity for tracking civilian deaths it causes, and instead counts them ad hoc, leading to what many human-rights observers consider a drastic underrepresentation.
The CIA declined comment on the Airwars report. CENTCOM and the U.S. Special Operations Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment.