Yemen: Why Women Fought Against the U.S. Navy SEALs in Trump's First Counterterrorism Operation

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Women walk past graffiti denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in the capital city of Sanaa, on February 6. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Updated | The first counterterrorism operation authorized by President Donald Trump quickly went awry. In late January, Navy SEAL Team 6 and United Arab Emirates special forces attacked Al-Qaeda insurgents in Yemen, but the militants spotted the approaching Americans and an hourlong firefight ensued. One SEAL died and three others were injured, and Yemeni officials claim that between 13 and 16 civilians were killed—including at least eight women and children.

Those numbers are still being verified, but the dead reportedly included the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born former top operative of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (Al-Awlaki, and later his teenage son, was killed by American drone strikes in 2011.) The girl’s photo quickly circulated online, sparking outrage over what many—the Trump administration excluded—consider a hasty and poorly organized U.S. raid.

Related: What Went Wrong With Trump's Yemen Raid

The civilian deaths were a shocking PR blunder, but part of the reason so many women were killed is that some of them actually squared off against the SEALs. A Department of Defense spokesperson later said they appeared to be trained combatants of AQAP, Al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and one of the group’s most dangerous branches. The fate of the female Al-Qaeda fighters made me wonder why they joined such a brutal group. There is no excuse for militants’ attacks, of course, but it’s important to understand their root causes. That would include ideology but also desperation: Yemen is rapidly running out of resources. When people are hungry and need to feed their kids, they will resort to almost anything.

Not all female militants are driven by poverty—take Italy’s Red Brigade, for example, or Basque separatist group ETA, in which women have risen to take over leadership at times—but in Yemen there are few options for survival, and the jihadis often provide food and security.

“We are Arab, Muslim and tribal—but very different from other women in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Suha Bashren, a gender specialist with the nongovernmental organization Oxfam, tells me. In Yemen, she says, the law makes few provisions for women outside the family structure. “We have to be attached to men. We cannot stand by ourselves.”

There is also hunger. Malnutrition in Yemen is at an all-time high and increasing. In a report published in December, UNICEF said at least one child dies every 10 minutes because of malnutrition, diarrhea and respiratory-tract infections. "The state of health of children in the Middle East's poorest country has never been as catastrophic as it is today,” Meritxell Relaño, the agency's acting representative, said in a statement.

“If bombs don’t kill you,” says Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary-General Jan Egeland, “a slow and painful death by starvation is now an increasing threat.”

Egeland and others are concerned that the two-year-old Yemen conflict is escalating, and according to the refugee council, “more than 17 million Yemenis do not know if they will be able to put food on the table to feed their families.” The figures are staggering. The U.N. estimates that 80 percent of the population is in need of aid.  

The reason the country is in such terrible shape goes back to late 2011, when fighting erupted between the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebel forces representing the Zaidis, a Shiite minority. The conflict has lasted nearly as long as the Syrian civil war, but it has received far less news coverage. Yemen is one of the most troubled countries in the region and will certainly be one of the flashpoints of 2017.  

The conflict has not only left the country in ruins; it’s become yet another messy proxy war. Iran has been accused of aiding the Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia—backed by the U.S. and the U.K., among others—has carried out airstrikes with the goal of restoring Hadi to power. And analysts say these aerial attacks have led to the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen.

Even before the conflict, however, Yemeni women struggled. Girls are often married off early, as they have limited economic opportunities and thus are considered financial burdens by parents. In 2012, I witnessed this when I traveled to a remote part of the country with Oxfam. We traveled for days through sun-scorched villages, rising at dawn to avoid the heat of the day and bandits on the road. We drove through coastal plains to the Western port city of Hodeida in the Hays region.

In a village of mud huts outside of Hodeida, I met Aisha, a 12-year-old girl who had just been married off to a man in his 30s. She was lovely, shy and tearful, and recently wed. When we tried to talk to Aisha and her mother about putting her into school, they were adamant that marriage was the only way she could survive. “We have no way of feeding her,” her mother said. “Her husband can take care of her now.” The girl cried a bit and told me that her wedding night “hurt a lot,” but she seemed resigned to her new life.

Everyone who studies radicalization knows that education and decreasing poverty mitigate its effects. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Aisha being pulled into a jihadi cell because she needs to eat, or because she is being told what to do. If she accepted a forced marriage in order to survive, it’s not hard to imagine her picking up a gun for the same reason.

There are many Aishas in Yemen. And Trump’s attempt to implement a temporary travel ban on Yemeni refugees (and those from several other Muslim-majority countries) could make it worse. In early February, Hadil Mansoor al-Mowafak, a Yemeni student at Stanford, wrote in The New York Times about her fear that the refugee ban would “make terrorism only worse” in her country. “Education is hard to come by in Yemen,” she wrote. “Some universities have been destroyed, and others closed down after bombings.”

Many have pointed to the irony of Trump’s attempted ban coinciding with the disastrous operation in Yemen. “How can the United States kill Yemenis while simultaneously barring civilians from seeking refuge here?” al-Mowafak wrote.

Like many others, she worries that the travel ban and the American military presence in the Middle East will quickly help Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts. This, combined with Yemen’s persistent poverty and the bloody civil war, bodes ill for the future of the country and the people there—especially the women—who have been subject to years of extreme violence and see no end in sight