The US killed three al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters today in the first recorded drone strike in Yemen since the end of August. The strike took place in an eastern province of Yemen where AQAP has been regrouping over the past year.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers killed the three AQAP fighters in a strike on a vehicle as it traveled in the Ghayl Bawazir area near Mukallah, the provincial capital of the eastern province of Hadramout, according to Reuters. Yemeni officials denied that its military carried out an airstrike in the area, The Associated Press reported. Yemeni officials, including President Hadi, have stated in the past that the Yemeni air force does not possess the ability to strike moving vehicles.
The target of today’s strike was not disclosed. No senior AQAP commanders or operatives are reported to have been killed at this time.
Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden’s family, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. In May, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in the Ghayl Bawazir area.
In 2012, the US stepped up drone strikes against AQAP in Hadramout. Prior to May 2012, there were zero US drone strikes in the province. From mid-May until the end of 2012, the US launched seven attacks in Hadramout. Seven of the 42 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, or 17%, have taken place in the province. And four of the 23 strikes in Yemen so far this year, or 17%, have occurred in Hadramout.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
Today’s strike is the first in Yemen since Aug. 30, when the US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s commander in Baydah province.
Between July 27 and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen, but no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The spike in attacks from the end of July to mid-August was related to an al Qaeda plot that was uncovered by US officials. The plot’s discovery led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The plot involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.
The US has launched 23 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. Despite the recent uptick of activity at the end of July and into the second week of August, the pace of the strikes has decreased since last year. In 2012, the US launched 42 drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia. The previous year, the US launched 10 drone and air strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.
Although six senior AQAP operatives, including the group’s deputy emir, Said al Shihri, were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012, the group’s top leadership cadre remains intact. In July, AQAP confirmed that al Shihri, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed; he is thought to have died or been seriously wounded in a strike in October 2012.
The US has targeted not only senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, but also low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government. This trend was first identified by The Long War Journal in the spring of 2012 [see LWJ report, US drone strike kills 8 AQAP fighters, from May 10, 2012]. Obama administration officials have claimed, however, that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP’s local insurgency against the Yemeni government.
For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013.