Pentagon officials have identified the U.S. service member killed in a raid in Yemen over the weekend as Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Illinois.
Owens was killed in a firefight Sunday with militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's branch in Yemen. As NBC News reports, the raid left nearly 30 others dead, including the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born al Qaeda leader who was himself killed in a U.S. strike five years ago.
The raid, conducted by the supersecret Joint Special Operations Command in southern Yemen, was intended to capture intelligence, specifically computer equipment, according to a senior U.S. military official. Three al Qaeda leaders were killed in the raid, U.S. officials told NBC News.
Three U.S. service members were wounded, as was a fourth, who was injured when a military aircraft assisting in the mission had a "hard landing" nearby, according to U.S. Central Command.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released a statement Monday offering condolences to the family and shipmates of the fallen Navy sailor.
"Ryan gave his full measure for our nation, and in performing his duty, he upheld the noblest standard of military service," Mattis' statement said. "The United States would not long exist were it not for the selfless commitment of such warriors."
Contrary to earlier reporting, a senior military official said, the raid was not a holdover mission approved by President Obama, but President Trump's first clandestine strike. The mission involved "boots on the ground" at an al Qaeda camp near al Bayda in south central Yemen, said the official.
Planning for the clandestine counterterrorism raid began before President Barack Obama left office on Jan. 20, but Trump authorized the raid, according to a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details beyond those announced by the Pentagon and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
That means Owens is the first member of the U.S. military to have died in action authorized by President Donald Trump.
"Americans are saddened this morning with news that a life of a heroic service member has been taken in our fight against the evil of radical Islamic terrorism," Trump said in a statement.
"My deepest thoughts and humblest prayers are with the family of this fallen service member," he said.
The U.S. has been striking al Qaeda in Yemen from the air for more than 15 years, mostly using drones. Sunday's surprise pre-dawn raid could signal a new escalation against extremist groups in the Arab world's poorest but strategically located country.
The action provides an early window into how the new president will put his campaign rhetoric into action when it comes to foreign intervention.
Trump had promised an "America first" approach and an end to the "era of nation building" if he won the White House. Many interpreted his language as isolationist and expected Trump to be more cautious about where the U.S. intervened.
At the same time, Trump had broadcast a stronger posture on the world stage. He pledged to beef up the military and said he aimed to achieve "peace through strength."
Sunday's raid was not the first time that the United States had conducted a counterterrorism raid on the ground in Yemen, but it was not the usual approach of striking from the air, the defense official said.
The raid was planned as a clandestine operation and not intended to be made public, but the loss of a service member changed that, the official said, adding that no detainees were taken in the operation.
In addition to killing the militants, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said U.S. forces "captured a whole host of information about future plots that's going to benefit this country and keep us safe."
The president "extends his condolences," he said on ABC's "'This Week." ''But more importantly, [he] understands the fight that our servicemen and women conduct on a daily basis to keep this country safe."
Just over a week ago, suspected U.S. drone strikes killed three other alleged al Qaeda operatives in Bayda in what was the first-such killings reported in the country since Trump assumed the U.S. presidency.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long seen by Washington as among the most dangerous branches of the global terror network, has exploited the chaos of Yemen's civil war, seizing territory in the south and east.
The war began in 2014, when Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies swept down from the north and captured the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led military coalition has been helping government forces battle the rebels for nearly two years.