The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that the objective of last week's Navy SEALs raid in Yemen was in part to capture al Qaeda terrorists. Military officials did not dispute his statement, despite their comments earlier in the week that the purpose was to gather intelligence.
"My understanding of the parameters of the raid were, they wanted to capture individuals," Republican Sen. John McCain, who received a classified briefing on the raid Tuesday, told NBC News. "The objective was to kill the bad guys but also capture some of them," he continued, adding that another goal was to "gain information from various electronic devices."
McCain's comments added a new twist to a series of contradictory descriptions of the deadly mission offered by senior government officials — some not for attribution, and others purporting to be official accounts.
All agree that the operation did not go as planned, resulting in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and of civilians, including the 8-year-old daughter of U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The SEALs lost the element of surprise and had to call in helicopter gunships. A $75 million Osprey had to be destroyed on the ground to avoid falling into enemy hands.
NBC News reported Monday that senior military and intelligence officials said a secret objective of the raid was to capture or kill Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of Yemen's al Qaeda affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
On Tuesday, spokesmen for U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon and the White House all disputed that report, saying that al Rimi was not the target. Intelligence officials also pushed back, declining to be named and telling NBC News that the CIA did not have hard information suggesting he was present at the site.
In their comments, the officials insisted that the goal of the mission was to gather intelligence.
"The objective was site exploitation to find out more about how AQAP operates, functions, and how they communicate with each other," Col John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday. Central Command conducted the mission with the SEALs.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer later added, "The he raid that was conducted in Yemen was an intelligence-gathering raid. That's what it was. It was highly successful. It achieved the purpose it was going to get — save the loss of life that we suffered and the injuries that occurred."
Confronted with McCain's comments, military officials acknowledged to NBC News Wednesday that "site exploitation," could include detaining and interrogating al Qaeda terrorists who were on the compound.
There were a few "named individuals," expected to be living on the site whom the U.S. hoped to capture, one senior military official said, declining to say whether any of them were detained.
The official added that these were not figures of the importance of al-Rimi, who is considered the third most dangerous terrorist in the world.
One of the people killed was Abdulrauf al Dhahab, whom U.S. officials identified as one of three "senior al Qaeda leaders" killed in the raid. U.S. officials said the Yemenis were upset about the death of al Dhahab, because while the U.S. may call him an al Qaeda leader, the Yemenis considered him a tribal leader and an ally in the fight against the Houthi rebels in their ongoing civil war.