WASHINGTON – The intelligence captured in a January raid in Yemen is “definitely helping” military intelligence analysts understand the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula network, according to a defense official.
“There were large volumes of information that were made available that are helping us understand and further develop the AQAP network. who’s connected to who, and who some of the individuals are,” the defense official told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday on the condition of anonymity.
“I would say it’s definitely helping us understand the network,” the official said. “It’s helping us understand the network and further develop it out.”
The defense official also said the intelligence was “potentially actionable.”
“I think anytime you can fix anything in time and place it’s potentially actionable, if it can be tied to nefarious activities,” the official added.
“We found an awful lot of telephone numbers, an awful lot of contact information, things like that, so it helps us understand who’s within the network, and who’s tied to who, and who’s connected to who, which then allows us to draw that mosaic of what the group is, and how it’s situated,” the official said.
“And if you get that good enough, and you know that they’re bad enough, then that obviously becomes a policy question as to what you do about it,” he added.
The characterizations come amid a public debate over whether the intelligence captured in President Trump’s first raid in Yemen, which led to a loss of a Navy SEAL and a $70 million aircraft, was worth executing.
NBC News report on Feb. 28 said several U.S. senior officials said that so far, the raid yielded no significant or actionable intelligence. NBC News again reported on Mar. 1 that none of the intelligence was actionable or vital, after Trump said in his address to Congress that the intelligence was “vital.”
But CNN reported on March 2 that the intelligence was helping the US identify “hundreds” of al Qaeda contacts.
Some on Twitter have mocked this discrepancy.
How does one figure out what's true here? pic.twitter.com/2ENxHNMm2y
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 3, 2017
Asked whether the intelligence found is “vital,” the defense official said the term is “subjective,” but added, “I am an intelligence officer, I will always take more information, always, and this has been good information, so we’re happy to have it.”
Defense officials describe a growing threat from the terrorist group that needed to be addressed months before Trump took office.
They say commanders began developing a proposal during the Obama administration, to go after AQAP more aggressively, which was ultimately approved by President
“This goes to a plan and a thought process that is developed over many months that goes well back into last year where our commanders on the ground began to develop this proposal to do this,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said on Friday.
“I know that everyone wants to draw something political from this and say ‘Oh, this has to do with’ — again, I will tell you that the planning for this, the momentum for this was something that was building well before January 20th,” Davis said.
In addition to the Jan. 28 raid, the proposal included more airstrikes. So far, there have been more than 30 airstrikes in the first two months of Trump’s presidency.
Davis said all the targets had been developed before the January raid.
In his remaining year, President Obama had ramped up airstrikes in Yemen. He also authorized a December 2014 raid that killed two journalists, an American and a South African.
The U.S. has had U.S. special operations forces going in and out of Yemen for months to support government forces on the ground in the fight against AQAP.
Officials are keeping quiet about the exact proposal that Trump approved prior to the raid, out of concern for tipping off the enemy. However, they have divulged that it included Trump delegating the authority to approve missions, including the raid, to his commander in charge of the Middle East region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel.
“This was an authority that was delegated by the president, through the secretary of defense, to the Central Command commander to carry out,” Davis said.
Defense officials say AQAP has been growing in the chaos of the Yemeni civil war, which saw Iran-backed Houthi rebels topple the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in 2015.
AQAP is consistently among the top three terrorist threats to the U.S., the defense official who spoke on background said.
“We strongly believe AQAP remains intent on attacking the west and specifically our homeland, the United States,” the officials said.
AQAP has attempted two terrorist attacks against the U.S. One was in 2009, when it strapped an underwear bomb to a young Nigerian man, who boarded a flight to Detroit, Michigan and was thwarted by other passengers.
AQAP in 2010 then sent printer cartridges packed with explosives on two flights headed to the U.S. They were discovered at stopovers in the United Kingdom and in Dubai.
“They’ve consistently been at the forefront of developing innovative ways to attack — nonmetallic explosives being the most notable especially when you’re talking about airline threats,” the official said.
In addition, AQAP has been trying to inspire attacks by homegrown violent extremists in the U.S. and the West, the official said.
“AQAP propaganda against the West has a long track record of being very successful,” the official said.
The official said U.S. officials believe the group has a little more than 3,000 fighters in Yemen, and possibly have shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles referred to as MANPADS, that are capable of taking down civilian aircraft.
Davis said U.S. forces would continue to target AQAP, “in order to disrupt terrorist organizations’ plots and protect American lives.”
“Make no mistake AQAP while we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands,” he said.
“It is a deadly terrorist organization that has proven itself to be very effective in targeting and killing Americans and they have intent and aspirations to continue doing so.
“We are working to stop them from that,” he said.