Journalist unmasks so-called 'successful' U.S. raid in Yemen with first-hand reporting

Freelance journalist Iona Craig has upended the official story of a U.S. Navy Seal raid in Yemen. Her reporting on the first covert military assault of the Trump era challenges what has been deemed a "very successful mission."
Freelance journalist Iona Craig has upended the official story of a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen with her report, 'Death in al Ghayil,' published in The Intercept. Her journalism has been honoured with a 2018 Polk Award for foreign reporting. (Ahmed A. Basha)
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It's been hailed as a "very successful mission," by U.S. President Donald Trump. In January of last year, the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team 6 launched a covert assault in al Ghayil, a remote part of Yemen. The military operation was a first under the Trump administration, purportedly to capture or kill an al-Qaeda leader.

At the time, freelance journalist Iona Craig was just set to leave the war-torn country but stayed to report on the U.S. raid. Disguised and travelling treacherous roads through volatile conflict zones, Craig found the story that Washington never wanted told.

And now, she's won the prestigious Polk Award for her foreign reporting of this story, published in The Intercept.

Craig joined The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti to share how she got to the heart of this story.

What do you think when you hear about the success of the mission back then?

Well it was quite obvious almost immediately that the mission was not successful. I was in Yemen and it was quickly apparent with the messages that were going out on social media and the local media of mass civilian casualties. 

The village of al Ghayil in Yemen where U.S. Navy SEALs, attack helicopters, and drones launched an operation on Jan. 29, 2017 (Iona Craig)

But also later on, the so-called information that the U.S. military brought back, that was then posted by them online trying to prove what they'd achieved in the mission was a video supposedly made by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of bomb-making. Well as it turned out that video had been widely available on the internet for many years and actually pre-dated the very existence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. 

So even their own evidence undermined what President Trump, the White House and the military were saying.

So you saw the disconnect from what the Americans were saying and what you were hearing on the ground. What did you decide to do?

Back in 2013, there had been several drone strikes in that area and one of them had hit a wedding convoy and killed numerous civilians. I'd been down in Al Bayda, so I called up some of those people that I still knew from that reporting trip a few years earlier. They confirmed there had been mass civilian casualties and children had been killed. I then realized the importance of actually getting there to try and both see what has gone on and also speak to witnesses and survivors. 

But in the context of the civil war in Yemen it was going to be quite an undertaking to actually get there in the first place.

Freelance journalist Iona Craig describes the four-day journey to get first-hand accounts from witnesses and survivors of the U.S. raid in a remote part of Yemen. 2:14

You actually reached out to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to let them know you were coming through. Why and how do you do that?

I've worked in Yemen for many years and through that work I've had communication with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As a reporter, one of the few that has been covering the country solidly basically for nearly eight years now, they pretty much came to me several years ago to communicate.

I have met with them when they controlled the city of Mukalla, in southern Yemen in 2015 and 2016 and I had the same tactic which is to inform them that I am wishing to travel to that area that is under their control but not telling them when I will be coming or how I'll be traveling — that's for my own security, really.

And you had to disguise yourself, did you not?

It's a method I've come to use over many years in Yemen. It's probably easier as a woman actually to do this kind of work because in Yemen women traditionally wear the niqab. A face veil and the abaya, a long, loose black dress because of the conservative culture — and as a woman I can travel that way.

My eyes, as some Yemenis pointed out, were too green. So I solved that problem. I wear contact lenses and bought a pair of brown-tinted contact lenses specifically for that use. 

Children stand in the rubble of houses destroyed during a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in the village of al Ghayil in Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017. (Iona Craig)

I've been travelling like this as ease for getting through checkpoints, as well as security, and just to be able to do my job.

You are the first and only reporter who actually went out and checked on the ground what actually happened there, and it contradicts what the Trump administration was saying. Your report revealed essentially that they lied about their first military operation ... What has the fallout been?

As a result of not just the work that I did, some Yemeni human rights workers went to the village as well. The American Civil Liberties Union put in Freedom of Information requests with the Trump administration, with U.S. military, with the State Department about trying to get information on the decision-making process behind the raid, and the legal basis that it was carried out. That hasn't been successful. They're now suing the administration for that or other government agencies for that information.

But, of course, if you go back through history, I've covered similar kind of stories under the Obama administration trying to extract that information from the American government is pretty much impossible. There is very little, if any, transparency about how these operations are carried out in the sense of how the decision-making process works and the legalities for it. 

But I think what it also revealed in my reporting was the change that had happened under the Trump administration quite quickly after Trump came into office, about how operations were going to be carried out in places like Yemen and shifting the legal basis for it.

A girl stands in the burnt-out remains of a house destroyed during the U.S. Navy SEAL raid in the village of al Ghayil in Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017 (Iona Craig)

You're a freelancer, what's the lesson about how we consume information on war as these things continue to unfold?

I think as every freelancer knows, now particularly with foreign reporting, it's freelancers that are picking up the slack in the cutbacks and the reduced budgets of many news organizations. But then as freelancers we often have the least access to the kind of money that might be out there that media organizations have.

It's really important that some of those big media organizations that don't want to, either for security reasons or for financial reasons go out to try and report on these stories, is find the beat reporters who can do it. And that may be other foreign journalists like myself or it may be local reporters because they are able to go to those areas more safely.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.

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