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UK Special Forces Operations: Yemen (incl. Djibouti)

Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under. This section outlines the extent of UKSF’s operations in Yemen (incl. Djibouti).

Vice News investigation revealed that UKSF would be ‘temporary visitors’ to bases in Sanaa, to conduct kill or capture missions of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) facilitators. The report also revealed that operators from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment had been seconded to MI6, which allowed the MOD to remain compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights, whilst also having UKSF personnel conduct assassinations.

In 2014/15, two hostage rescues alongside US and UAE forces respectively, were launched in Yemen, launching from nearby Djibouti.

Two years later, SBS troops were again flown into Djibouti, to protect transit shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait after Houthi rebels attacked an oil tanker. At the start of 2019, a 12-man SAS/US Green Beret team was tasked with locating drop zones for food and medical supplies to Yemenis suffering from the conflict on the ground around Aden. The forces began suffering casualties.  In February, two SBS troops were injured by a roadside bomb. A month later, at least five SBS members were injured in Sa’dah, northern Yemen , with two being shot by Houthi rebels.

A former British serviceman who had returned from Yemen in 2019 told the Mail on Sunday that the conflict saw UKSF fighting on the same side as child soldiers. This is because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its main partner in the war, bribed Yemeni tribal leaders with links to Al Qaeda to take their side in the conflict and up to 40% of their forces can be children.

2012-15

British personnel serving in Yemen confirmed that two of the trainers of the Yemeni National Security Bureau were operators from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (a special forces unit), who had been seconded to SIS. This made their presence deniable by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), which said in a 2014 statement to human rights NGO Reprieve: “The UK does not provide any military support to the US campaign of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) strikes on Yemen.” The secondment allowed British military personnel to assist with the drone program, but under the aegis of intelligence operations managed by the FCO.

In addition to the NSB they helped to train Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), the country’s secret police, in surveillance, communications, and intelligence-gathering — all of which helped to establish positive identifications of targets before drone strikes. The PSO has been implicated in systemic human rights abuses.

SF continued to train and work with Yemen’s CSF, despite all others stopping intelligence sharing with US, “because of the drone program and our requirement for counterterrorism rule of law.”

A British official noted that, “once they are seconded, the MoD loses any control over what they get up to.” This allowed the MoD to remain in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, while British troops were nonetheless used to assist in the assassination of targets. (Vice)

2013

August: Show of force against Al-Qaeda, training exercise with Navy. The Mirror reports that once Cougar 13 reaches Djibouti, off the Horn Of Africa, elements of British Special Forces, namely Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) troops, will ‘simulate evacuating British nationals taken hostage by terrorists’.

2014

December: A British force of 10 SAS and intelligence operatives were part of the US-led Coalition Joint Special Operations Task Force to rescue Brit/US citizen Luke Somers from Al-Qaeda hostage situation in a cave in Shabwa region, which deployed from the former French colony of Djibouti. (Express)

2015

August: SAS behind the hostage rescue of Bob Semple. UAE troops conducted the rescue, unknown whether UK troops were on the ground in the operation. (Mirror)

2016

January: British Ministry of Defence confirmed that its forces [not necessarily special forces] were in the “command and control centre” to provide training and advice for Saudi air strikes in Yemen.[Guardian]

2018

June- July: 20 SBS troops flown into Djibouti after Houthi rebels attacked an oil tanker in international waters, so were sent to protect shipping transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait .  Joined US SF – dubbed Coalition Task Force 150. “Armed members of the SBS boarded Queen Mary 2 last month as the passenger ship transited the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Aden – dubbed ‘pirate alley’. The Coalition Special Forces team has the capability to launch drones from the secret Camp Lemonnier base in Djibouti. It can also launch a raid against any attackers using Osprey V22 tilt-rotor helicopters.” [Mail]

2019

January: A 12-man US/UK special forces task force, comprising the SAS and the US Green Berets, was flown into Yemen.They were tasked with locating drop zones for food and medical supplies. (Express)

The soldiers were dressed in Arab clothing and were reported to be operating near the government-held town of Marib, 500 miles north of Aden. They were tasked with locating drop zones for food and medical supplies which can be easily accessed by desperate locals. The SAS is working alongside members of Operational Detachment Alpha, the primary fighting force for the Green Berets. Under US command, the heavily armed Special Forces team flew into Aden from Djibouti aboard a UAE Chinook helicopter and met UAE commanders before heading north-east in unmarked pick-up trucks. (Express)

February: Two SBS troops were reportedly injured by an IED [roadside bomb] while on a humanitarian mission in Yemen following the battles in the Sa’dah area of northern Yemen [still Marib base]. (Mail)

March: SBS troops’ presence in the country (report refers to at least 30 troops) made public following a Daily Mail report on special forces casualties wounded while fighting Iranian backed rebels. The SBS mentoring teams inside Yemen include medics, translators and Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.

At least 5 members of the Special Boat Service had been injured during fighting in the country, suffering leg and arm wounds. (Mail)

A SBS source said: ‘The guys are fighting in inhospitable desert and mountainous terrain against highly committed and well-equipped Houthi rebels. The SBS’s role is mainly training and mentoring but on occasions they have found themselves in firefights and some British troops have been shot.

‘In a contact a few weeks ago, a SBS guy was shot in the hand and another guy was shot in the leg. Their injuries were a reminder that this is a very dangerous assignment. Obviously nothing about the mission will be confirmed publicly by the Ministry of Defence unless a UK soldier is killed – they’d have to announce that.’

NB: The conflict has also seen British Special Forces fighting on the same side as jihadis and militia which use child soldiers. This is because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its main partner in the war, have bribed Yemeni tribal leaders with links to Al Qaeda to take their side in the conflict. – up to 40% of their forces can be children, according to MoS source.

2021

August: 40 special forces soldiers were deployed to Mahra, eastern Yemen to track down the Houthi perpetrators of the tanker attack. The team also includes a “specialist warfare unit”. US and Israeli intelligence believe the drone was launched from eastern Yemen by reportedly Iranian-backed militants (Express).