US Defense Policy in Yemen

By Madison Johnston

The Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2011, but the protests against the government, separatists within the nation, and the rise of Islamic extremism have dragged the country into an Arab Winter. Anti-government sentiments grew in 2011 partially because Ali Abdullah Saleh had been President for more than thirty years. In response to calls for resignation and removal from office, Saleh’s Vice President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, was the only candidate in the election of 2012. This seemingly rigged election did not satisfy citizens hoping for political change in Yemen, especially members of the Houthi Zaidi Shi’a population[1].

The Houthis, led by Mohommed Ali Al-Houthi, are an ethnic and religious minority group who have created unrest in the northern governorate of Saadah since 2004. However, after the demonstrations of 2011, the group increased violent attacks on Sunni tribes in the north of Yemen. The Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee captured the Yemen capital of Sana’a in 2015 and demanded their own state with political, economic and military support from Iran. The current Hadi government of Yemen is operating out of the southern town of Aden with support from an international coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the US[2]. The United States’ policy goals in the conflict include enabling the Hadi government to defend their legitimacy against separatists and non-state actors who include ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) who have taken advantage of the unrest to commit attacks and seize territory[3]. According to the U.N. News Centre of 2017, the Yemeni conflict has resulted in a humanitarian crisis that has almost 370,000 children at risk of starvation and “3,799 civilians have died in the conflict, with coalition air strikes responsible for an estimated 60% of the deaths.” The country reached a bleak reality of 14.12 million people suffering from food insecurity and 3.11 million people internally displaced[4].

The American mission to obtain intelligence on AQAP in the country has been underway for at least a decade. This includes supporting regional allies who share the common goals of eradicating Islamic extremist groups. The US has been supplying Saudi Arabia with military equipment and a total of $119 billion dollars since 2009[5]. President Obama’s administration made strides to attempt and stop the flow of martial goods and remove American influence from the conflict in Yemen, but failed. President Trump’s new administration is taking a much more active role.

The raid in January was carried out by Navy SEAL Team 6 with the ultimate objective of obtaining important intelligence on the terrorist group and their operations in Yemen and around the world. However, Houthi forces ousted President Hadi in 2015 and this compromised the American counterterrorism program in the country which could have affected the communications for the raid. By the time the SEAL team arrived, not only had AQAP forces become aware of the incoming attack, but the SEAL commandos learned about their cover being compromised. Despite the precarious position, they decided to continue with the mission. The SEAL team encountered female and child human shields as well as female fighters upon approaching the compound which resulted in a 50-minute shootout, which came to an end when air strikes were ordered in. The Hadi led government of Yemen was not pleased with the attack. The strikes led to between 24-29 civilians casualties including families, women, and children. During the fray, a $75 million MV-22 Osprey took a rough landing, injuring three Americans on board, and was intentionally annihilated by an airstrike because of the damage[6]. One American Navy SEAL, William Ryan Owens of Peoria, Illinois, lost his life during the raid and his father, himself a veteran, has called for an investigation into his son’s death and refused to meet with President Trump at his son’s funeral[7].

Since the controversial raid, the Trump administration has increased the air strikes in Yemen on AQAP. The highest number of airstrikes since 2009 include 38 strikes in 2014 and 41 strikes in 2012. Since the covert operation in January, there have been 30 airstrikes in the region over a two month period[8]. It appears that the new administration has revamped counterterrorism relations and efforts in Yemen because Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis has stated that the Hadi government has approved of the airstrikes and will continue to work with the US in the fight against AQAP. The statement made clear that the 20 attacks made on March 2nd were targeting “AQAP militants, equipment and infrastructure in the Yemeni governorates of Abyan, Al Bayda and Shabwah” and will “limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting”[9].


[1]Al Batati, S. (2015, March 29). Who are the Houthis in Yemen?

[2]BBC. (2016, October 14). Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?

[3]Times, T. N. (2016, October 15). How the U.S. Became More Involved in the War in Yemen

[4]U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). (2017). Yemen.

[5]Bayoumy, Yara. (2016, September 7). “Obama Administration Arms Sales Offers to Saudi Top $115 Billion: Report.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters

[6]Schmitt, E., & Sanger, D. E. (2017, February 01). Raid in Yemen: Risky From the Start and Costly in the End.

[7]Brown, J. K. (2017, February 26). Slain SEAL’s dad wants answers: ‘Don’t hide behind my son’s death’.

[8]Roggio, B. (2017, March 4). US blitzes AQAP in Yemen with an unprecedented 30 airstrikes.

[9] Davis, J. (2017, March 2). Statement by Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. Strikes again.