I linked a year ago to a news story by Iona Craig that described the horrific killings of civilians by the US during a botched raid on the Yemeni village of Al Ghayiil. This was a raid to supposedly capture an al Qaeda leader that was hailed by the Trump administration and much of the mainstream media in the US as a ‘success’ when it was anything but and it was Craig’s report with photographs that revealed the devastation that was wreaked on an impoverished village in a remote area. The Pentagon’s top Middle East commander ‘investigated’ the case US and, despite the evidence, concluded that “he found no signs of “poor decision-making or bad judgment” in a January raid in Yemen that killed 10 children and at least six women, as well as Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens”.
The important thing is the story itself of course but sometimes we need to step back and look at what it takes to report such stories. Peter Maass writes that Craig has just been awarded the prestigious 2018 Polk award for Foreign Reporting and he describes how hard it was for her to get the story, not least because of who she was and the danger of being in a conflict zone.
In ordinary times, the car journey from Aden to al Ghayil, where the raid occurred, would have taken eight hours and been relatively simple. But the war in Yemen, which has spiraled into an international conflict pitting Houthi rebels against a Saudi-U.S. bombing campaign, has divided the country into no-go zones controlled by one side or the other. The direct route to al Ghayil would have crossed contested frontlines and veered into territories controlled by Houthis and other forces that are especially hostile to Western reporters. It would almost certainly have ended with Craig’s arrest, and probably worse for the Yemenis she would travel with.
The best option, Craig decided, was to take a ridiculously roundabout four-day route that kept her within territory controlled by the government and the Saudi-U.S. coalition, but still entailed potential encounters with Al Qaeda and Islamic State forces. In the risk assessment forms she provided to The Intercept before setting off, Craig described the potential hazards as “Detention and/or kidnap. IEDs, small arms fire, air strikes.” She assessed the likelihood of those hazards occurring as “medium to high.” Trained in first aid, she would be traveling with a full medical kit to treat injuries that she or her Yemeni traveling partners might incur. She provided The Intercept with proof-of-life information that could be used in the event she was kidnapped.
She could not travel openly as a Westerner. As Craig explained in a lengthy interview published last year by Poynter, for the entire journey she dressed as a Yemeni woman in an all-black abaya and niqab. Her camouflage included black gloves, so that the pale skin on her hands would not give her away. She also wore brown-tinted contact lenses to cover her green eyes. Though she was able to camouflage herself, the ruse was not foolproof, and if the wrong people recognized her, the consequences could be dire.
CRAIG’S STORY DESTROYED the Trump narrative of an effective raid that, despite the death of a Navy SEAL, resulted in an important capture of intelligence information. This narrative had been repeated by major media outlets, which had not taken the time and effort to investigate, on the ground, what really happened. Craig learned from the eyewitnesses she interviewed that U.S. forces had tried to storm al Ghayil but had come under fire from villagers who thought Houthi forces were attacking. The U.S. troops called in air support.
“In what seemed to be a blind panic, the gunships bombarded the entire village, striking more than a dozen buildings, razing stone dwellings where families slept,” Craig reported. At least six women were killed, as were 10 children under the age of 13.
Craig, in comments to The Intercept, gave credit to, among others, the Yemenis who helped arrange her journey and travelled with her. They cannot be named for the sake of their own security, because coalition forces, including ones on the ground from the United Arab Emirates, do not look favorably on her work. Political opponents and others who are critical of their role in the country have been victims of enforced disappearance.
Some of the villagers Craig met on her visit to Al Ghayil were killed weeks later when U.S. aircraft returned to repeatedly bomb and strafe the village over four consecutive nights.
The Yemen war is a brutal one that is taking place far from the circus atmosphere in Washington, in which the US, its ally/proxy Saudi Arabia, and Iran are exacerbating what should be a local conflict. It is thanks to the courageous reporting of people like Craig and the Yemenis who were willing to assist her but had to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals that at least some attention is being given to it.