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How Trump’s first counter-terror operation, in Yemen, turned chaotic

WASHINGTON — The mission facing the Navy SEALs as they approached a remote desert compound was a formidable one: Detain Yemeni tribal leaders collaborating with Al Qaeda and gather intelligence that could plug a critical gap in US understanding of one of the world’s most dangerous militant groups.

Instead, a massive firefight ensued, claiming the life of an American sailor and at least one Yemeni child, and serving as an early lesson for President Trump’s national security team about the perils of overseas ground operations.

The raid Saturday in Yemen’s Bayda governorate, which included elite forces from the United Arab Emirates, was the first counterterrorism operation approved by Trump, who took office a week earlier. And the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William ‘‘Ryan’’ Owens was the first combat fatality of Trump’s presidency.

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Special operations such as this have always been risky for presidents to approve. Trump and some of his advisers have promised to give the military greater rein in authorizing such missions as part of their desire to wipe out extremist threats. But the president has also said he is leery of getting entangled too deeply in costly operations overseas.

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In Saturday’s operation, the SEALs faced difficulties from the start. After US forces descended on the village of Yaklaa, a heavily guarded Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stronghold surrounded by land mines, militants launched a counterattack.

As the pitched gun battle continued, officials called in Marine Cobra helicopter gunships, backed by Harrier jets, to strike the AQAP fighters, according to US officials familiar with the episode.

An elite Special Operations air regiment was then sent in to pull the team and its casualties out of the fray, banking into the night under heavy fire to link up with a Marine quick-reaction force that had taken off in MV-22 Ospreys from the USS Makin Island, floating offshore.

The two units planned to meet in the desert to transfer the wounded SEALs so they could be taken back to the amphibious assault ship for treatment, but one of the Ospreys lost power, hitting the ground hard enough to wound three Marines and disable the aircraft.

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With the twin-engine transport out of action, a Marine jet dropped a bomb on the $70 million Osprey to ensure it did not fall into militant hands.

Yemeni officials said the operation killed 15 women and children, including the 8-year-old daughter of the radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in 2011 in a US drone strike. US officials said they were unable to immediately confirm the civilian deaths but suggested most or all of those killed were militants. Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said women participated in the gunfight.

According to current and former officials with knowledge of the operation, military officials had proposed it weeks before, during Barack Obama’s time as president, as part of an attempt to compensate for intelligence losses caused by Yemen’s extended civil conflict.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab nations launching air attacks on Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States has provided some support to those air operations but has distanced itself over allegations of repeated attacks on civilian targets.

After considering the operation for weeks, Obama officials concluded a raid would not be possible before the president’s Jan. 20 departure, and they began to tee up a final decision for Trump’s top advisers.

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The operation, the first US-led ground raid in Yemen since 2014, came as the United States tries to rebuild a counterterrorism mission that has been curtailed since 2015. Last year, the United States established a tiny Special Operations presence in coastal Yemen, working alongside Emirati troops to keep tabs on AQAP, which has been involved in multiple plots to attack the West.

The operation may also be a sign of things to come. The Pentagon, according to two defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, is drawing up plans to be considered by the White House that, if approved, could delegate decision-making for operations in Yemen to a lower level and accelerate activities against AQAP.

While that would seemingly be indicative of a more aggressive stance by Trump, one official described the raid and the proposal as an outgrowth of Obama-era operations that have pushed Al Qaeda militants from their sanctuaries and provided more opportunities for US strikes.

‘‘We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,’’ another defense official said.

The same model was applied after an extended US air campaign in Libya that pushed Islamic State militants into desert camps, where they were eventually pursued and destroyed by stealth bombers.

A former senior defense official familiar with prior operations in Yemen said Saturday’s raid and the potential for expanded operations were ‘‘overdue.’’

‘‘We really struggled with getting the White House comfortable with getting boots on the ground in Yemen,’’ the former official said, like others speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. ‘‘Since the new administration has come in, the approvals [at the Pentagon] appear to have gone up.’’

Already, the Trump administration, in a flurry of executive actions, has shown a penchant for tightly held decision-making that has left out key agency officials.

Luke Hartig, a senior official for counterterrorism under President Obama, cautioned that even swift or delegated decision-making on national security matters requires consultation with a range of agencies that could address legal, diplomatic, and other questions.

‘‘It’s not about slowing things down — it’s about making sure the complexities are well addressed prior to approval,’’ said Hartig, who is now a fellow at New America and runs a research group at National Journal.

The Trump White House this week called the operation a success. A press release said the raid killed 14 militants and captured intelligence that could deter future attacks.

This week, Trump spoke with Owens’s family to offer his condolences.