• President Donald Trump may have ordered more attacks in Yemen than all previous US presidents combined, according to a report from the monitoring group Airwars.
  • While campaigning against “forever wars,” Trump has loosened rules of engagement in the global war on terror, dramatically escalating airstrikes and ground raids in Yemen and elsewhere.
  • The most intense period of US strikes came in 2017, Trump’s first year in office, beginning with a commando raid that left an 8-year-old girl dead.
  • “Earlier on in his presidency, we saw record numbers of both airstrikes and reported civilian harm in multiple theaters, fueled by Trump’s stated intent to ‘take the gloves off’ against terror groups,” Chris Woods, director of Airwars, told Business Insider.

Within days of taking office, President Donald Trump, who had campaigned on killing the families of alleged terrorists — and essentially doing the opposite of whatever President Barack Obama had done — ordered US commandos to carry out an early-morning raid in Yemen that had been vetoed by his predecessor.

“Almost everything went wrong,” one US official told NBC News. The attack, intended to take out a suspected group of al-Qaeda militants, began with a botched landing and ended with a Navy Seal dead. An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and the daughter of an extremist preacher who was assassinated-by-drone in the Obama years, was also killed, as were more than a dozen others.

Civilians were “likely killed,” the US military conceded.

Since 2017, the US has admitted to killing between 4 to 12 civilians, although the real number could be as high as 154 — and 86, at a minimum — according to a new report, “Eroding Transparency,” from the monitoring group Airwars. A disproportionate number of those killed died as a result of on-the-ground raids ordered by the Trump administration, the group found: despite accounting for less than 3% of US actions documented by Airwars, such attacks accounted for some 40% of all civilian casualties.

In 2017, the US admitted to carrying out 133 attacks in Yemen, the vast majority airstrikes, compared to just 150 confirmed strikes between all of 2002 and 2017. Clandestine strikes by the Central Intelligence Agency mean all figures come with an asterisk, but there was undeniable intensity to the attacks ordered in Trump’s first year, most likely a product of a new president and his “considerable loosening of the rules of engagement,” Airwars said in its report.

US strikes in Yemen have dropped off since then, to less than 40 in 2019 to less than 20 thus far this year. Does that mean, then, that President Trump is backing up his rhetoric against “forever wars” with measurable actions?

At the same time, the US government, under Trump, is being less transparent about who and what is bombing. In response to criticism of its campaign of extrajudicial killings, the Obama administration published, just hours before Trump’s inauguration, a report detailing both the number of US airstrikes abroad and the reported civilian harm they caused. The current administration has never published such a report since, transparency only coming in piecemeal form as a result of congressional action demanding it.

In 2019, the Department of Defense stopped even saying how many airstrikes it had carried out in Yemen, granted a lack of transparency usually reserved for the CIA.

“Donald Trump’s wars represent a paradox,” Woods said. “While currently we’re seeing some of the lowest numbers of US airstrikes in years across major theaters, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria … this is a pretty recent phenomenon. Earlier on in his presidency, we saw record numbers of both airstrikes and reported civilian harm in multiple theaters, fueled by Trump’s stated intent to ‘take the gloves off’ against terror groups.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden has called for ending US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, which has killed far more civilians — thousands each year, and 100,000 since 2015 — than direct US counter-terrorism operations. Democrats in Congress, joined by a few Republicans, have also pressed for an end to that support, which began under Obama and increased under Trump.

But there is a bipartisan consensus on counter-terrorism. A Senate resolution offered by US Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, called for a prohibition on US support for the Saudi war in Yemen but carved out an exemption for direct US airstrikes on al-Qaeda and related extremists.

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A wanted poster for Jamal Mohammad Al-Badawi issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is seen at FBI headquarters May 15, 2003 in Washington, DC. 
Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images

On Twitter, the US president celebrated the strike.

Al-Badawi purportedly left extremism behind more than a decade ago; no reports since had indicated he had rejoined a terrorist organization, and there is no evidence that attempts were made to arrest him before he was assinated.

“A targeted attack on a reportedly reformed al-Qaeda fighter would seem to constitute new and troubling territory for the US armed drone program,” Airwars’ report states, potentially violating the 2001 congressional authorization for the use of force against perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That is only one aspect of US involvement in Yemen that may violate the law. As The New York Times reported in September, the State Department in 2016 determined that “American officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners.”

As with the global war on terror, those sales have only increased since the US experienced regime change.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and editorial stance of the SOHR.