How Iona Craig Won a Polk Award for Investigating a Botched SEAL Team Raid in Yemen

The Intercept
February 24, 2018

A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, on January 29, 2017, Iona Craig was at the tail end of a monthlong reporting trip to Yemen. On that day, special operators from the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 launched a surprise raid in a remote part of Yemen, apparently trying to capture or kill an Al Qaeda leader. This was the first covert assault of the Trump era, and the White House, which was not challenged in the U.S. media, hailed it as “highly successful.”

Except it wasn’t.

Craig, who was based in Yemen from 2010 to 2015 and had continued to make reporting trips to the country since a civil war broke out, quickly learned from local media that the raid had killed civilians. As she began planning for an arduous and risky journey to the site of the assault, local sheikhs who she knew from her previous work in the country told her that the U.S. was getting the story wrong. A large number of women and children had been killed, and the targeted village did not appear to have had a standing Al Qaeda presence.

But these accounts were just words that had yet to be confirmed. Craig had to go there to find out firsthand.

Craig was in Yemen to report a story for Harper’s Magazine about suicide bombers, and she had received a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Once the raid happened, she got in touch with The Intercept — she is a regular contributor — which gave her the financial backing to extend her stay and work on this new story. Earlier this week, the story, which was published by The Intercept last March, won the 2018 Polk Award for Foreign Reporting, the most prestigious U.S. honor for excellence in international journalism after the Pulitzer Prize.

What follows is a description of how Craig reported the story, which was both a major exposé that revealed the Trump administration lied about its first major military engagement, and an epic 1,000-mile journey through desolate parts of Yemen, where Craig and her Yemeni companions faced lethal risks. She was not only the first foreign journalist to report from al Ghayil, but she also remains the only one to have done so. It is a lesson to students, as well as skeptics, of journalism in what it takes to report an investigative article into wrongful killings by the U.S. military in a far-off battle zone. It is also a demonstration of how independent journalists are able to uncover important truths missed by traditional reporters who rely too heavily on official accounts coming from Washington.

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 who 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.

First, Craig made a 350-mile journey along the coast from Aden to Mukalla on a public bus (which ran out of fuel en route), a trip that took 10 hours. Then, after staying overnight in Mukalla, she and a Yemeni friend drove off before dawn for Bin Aifan, which was five hours away (they took the precaution of packing jerrycans filled with extra fuel). In Bin Aifan, she joined another Yemeni friend who would serve as her translator, driver, and companion for the rest of the journey to al Ghayil.

She and this friend drove west for 230 miles over flat desert to Marib. Once there, her camouflage took on an added element — she was now posing as the wife of her friend, because they would need to stay in a hotel in Marib. If Craig registered under her own name, local security officials would be notified. Yemeni women cannot stay in hotels with a man who is not their husband or a family member – so Craig’s companion became her husband, and she his wife, at least as far as the hotel staff were concerned.

Once in Marib, she checked with senior sheikhs in the village where the raid took place and asked for permission to visit them the next day; their agreement would constitute a guarantee of safety while she was with them. They agreed but told her to wait a day. This was a bit inconvenient, because Craig did not want to be found out; on her undesired layover in Marib, she had to be careful to not speak English in public and did her best to avoid speaking Arabic anywhere, lest her accent give her away.

Some of the territory ahead of her was controlled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Craig had negotiated travel access with the group for previous stories, so she did that again, in the manner that had proved wisest: She informed her Al Qaeda contacts of where she wanted to travel, but not when, how, or even if she would go. In the event Al Qaeda forces found her, someone along their chain of command would know that she wasn’t trying to sneak into their territory without authorization.

Craig established a careful security protocol for the final leg of the trip to al Ghayil. Every hour, she checked in via cellphone or satellite phone with two Yemeni contacts, one of whom ran a small security firm. Those contacts were in touch with The Intercept. If Craig missed a check-in, her Yemeni contacts would immediately get in touch with The Intercept, and everyone would scramble to find her.

Her travel was complicated by the fact that, until she finally reached al Ghayil with a driver sent by a local sheikh, she didn’t know the village’s exact location. The raid had been widely reported as taking place in “Yakla,” yet that refers to a wider district, not a village. Once she reached al Ghayil, Craig used her satellite phone to map her GPS coordinates. This proved crucial for, among other things, finding satellite imagery that showed the village, the location of which the U.S. military knew but had not shared with the public.

AT 5:30 IN the morning on February 9, 2017, Craig left Marib with her Yemeni “husband” and two local activists. They traveled in an SUV because of the difficult off-road conditions. The journey was expected to take three hours, but it took more than twice that, partly because a rock hit the undercarriage of their SUV and burst its oil line. They were about an hour away from al Ghayil at that point and far from any cellphone towers, so Craig used her satellite phone to call a local sheikh who sent someone to fetch them. They waited in the shade of bushes on the side of a river bed for an hour, facing mountain ridges controlled by Al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, until a pickup truck arrived with 30 bullet holes in its windshield – from the SEAL Team 6 raid, Craig was told.

One of the least-appreciated dangers of working in war zones is the seemingly mundane possibility of car accidents. Roads tend to be in particularly terrible shape due to disuse or overuse and lack of maintenance, and the vehicles correspondents travel in are generally not well-maintained, because little is well-maintained in wartime except the machines of war. Travel is often rushed to avoid being on the roads after nightfall, when dangers multiply. If there is an accident, medical attention is usually far away. Craig’s ride in the truck with 30 bullet holes was particularly perilous, winding through rocky gorges on what was little more than a donkey track, with a reckless local driver who nearly collided head-on with a camel stuck in a gorse bush.

Once in al Ghayil, Craig met with more than a dozen survivors and witnesses. Adults were interviewed separately to capture each individual’s account rather than a collective memory of what happened. She also toured buildings that had been bombed and shot during the raid, and she took pictures. She only had three and a half hours in the village before she had to leave for Marib in the hope of returning there before dark. Staying overnight in al Ghayil was out of the question because the area was unstable and word could filter out to the wrong people that a Western journalist was poking around.

Even though darkness was catching up with Craig long before she reached Marib, she made a detour to a hospital where she hoped to interview survivors of the attack. As it turned out, they had already been released. Craig and her Yemeni partners arrived back in Marib well after midnight. The journey from Marib to al Ghayil and back had taken 22 hours, including 14 hours of off-road driving through mountains and dry riverbeds.

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. “The first to die in the assault was 13-year old Nasser al Dhahab,” Craig wrote. Her account continued:

Nesma al Ameri, an elderly village matriarch who lost four family members in the raid, described how the attack helicopters began firing down on anything that moved. As she recounted the horror of what happened, Sinan tapped her on the arm. “No, no. The bullets were coming from behind,” the 5-year-old insisted, interrupting to demonstrate how he was shot at and his mother gunned down as they ran for their lives. “From here to here,” Sinan said, putting two fingers to the back of his head and drawing an invisible line to illustrate the direction of the bullet exiting her forehead. His mother fell to the ground next to him, still clutching his baby brother in her arms. Sinan kept running.

As a consequence of Craig’s story, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA and the Departments of Defense, Justice, and State. The ACLU is now suing the Trump administration to enforce that request, which asked for records including the legal basis and decision-making process used for the raid, as well as assessments of civilian deaths.

After the Polk Award was announced, Jeremy Scahill, a co-founding editor of The Intercept, noted that Craig’s work was unique.

“The war in Yemen — with its unspeakably catastrophic human toll — has been a scandalously under-reported story,” Scahill said. “No Western journalist has done more to document the human consequences of U.S. drone strikes and raids in Yemen than Iona Craig. She is a rare combination of fierce, brave, empathetic, and brilliant. She is also incredibly generous to reporters new to covering Yemen. Iona’s reporting always puts front and center the stories of people who have no voice in the U.S. and British media despite the crucial roles both countries have played in the collective punishment of the entire nation of Yemen. The only side she takes is that of truth. Giving Iona the George Polk Award is a great tribute to the life and legacy of the reporter for whom the prize is named.”

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.

“For me, the real importance is that such a prestigious prize gives recognition to the voices of the civilian victims that are so often drowned out by powerful government institutions thousands of miles away,” Craig said. “Official accounts will always go unchallenged in the absence of any other evidence, and Yemen isn’t always the easiest place to gather that evidence. The current conflict makes it an even greater challenge. There were calculated risks involved in getting the story. But it was worth it and receiving such an award hopefully means greater awareness of not only what happened that night back in January 2017 and in the months after, but also of the consequences of such military operations for both the U.S. and locally for Yemenis. Although there’s only one byline on the story, I’m in a very fortunate position to have a small but extremely important team of Yemenis who go out of their way (quite literally by many hundreds of miles in the case of this story) to keep me safe and to make this kind of reporting possible. This investigation, the recognition for it, is very much down to them and the people of al Ghayil who so warmly welcomed a stranger into their village in the days after the raid.”

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.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.