A wanted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative who was involved in the 2002 bombing of a French oil tanker was killed in a drone strike on Friday. And today, the US launched another strike in Yemen, killing five suspected AQAP fighters.
Yemen’s Defense Ministry said that Khaled Batis was one of eight terrorists killed on Aug. 31 when unmanned Predators or Reapers fired several missiles at a car as it traveled in the Hawra district in Hadramout province.
Batis is considered to be the mastermind of the 2002 attack on the French-flagged Limburg, an oil tanker that was transporting crude to Malaysia. The Limburg attack occurred when a small boat laden with explosives rammed into the ship. A Bulgarian crew member was killed and 12 others were wounded in the attack. Batis has been in Yemeni custody, but he escaped from prison last year, according to Reuters.
Batis is the second AQAP operative involved in the Limburg attack to have been killed in a drone strike this year. On Jan. 31, US drones killed Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani near the city of Lawdar in Abyan province. Fatahani was involved in the Limburg attack as well as the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000. AQAP said that Fatahani had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US drone strike in Rada’a
On the same day that the death of Batis was announced, the US launched another strike against AQAP in Yemen. Yemeni officials initially said that the strike killed five suspected AQAP fighters as they traveled in the town of Rada’a, a city in Baydah province that was under AQAP control earlier this year, Reuters reported. But Yemeni tribal leaders in Rada’a claimed that 13 civilians were killed in the strike, according to The Yemen Post.
The exact target of today’s strike has not been disclosed; no senior AQAP leaders have been reported killed in the attack.
On May 28, the US targeted Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir in the province of Baydah, and his brother Nabil, who is also a senior leader in the terror group, in a strike in Rada’a.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 31 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen so far this year; one in January, six in March, six more in April, nine in May, two in June, one in July, and five in August. Other recent airstrikes are believed to have been carried out by the US also, but little evidence has emerged to directly link the attacks to the US.
Since December 2009, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 46 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including today’s strike. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2012.]
The pace of the US airstrikes increased as AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, took over vast areas of southern Yemen starting at the end of May 2011. AQAP seized control of the cities and towns of Zinjibar, Al Koud, Jaar, and Shaqra in Abyan province, and Azzan in Shabwa province.
In May of this year, the Yemeni military launched an offensive to retake the cities and towns held by AQAP. Hundreds of AQAP fighters, Yemeni soldiers, and civilians have been reported killed during fighting that liberated Zinjibar, Jaar, Shaqra, and Azzan.
Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 41 airstrikes in Yemen. This year, the US appears to be targeting both AQAP leaders and foot soldiers in an effort to support Yemeni military operations against the terror group. AQAP had taken control of vast areas in southern Yemen and had been expanding operations against the government, with raids on military bases in locations previously thought to be outside the terror group’s control.
In addition to Batis and Fatahani, two other senior AQAP operatives have been killed in the 31 strikes so far this year. The most recent strike that killed a senior AQAP leader took place on May 6, when the US killed Fahd al Quso in a drone attack in Shabwa province. Quso, who has been described as AQAP’s external operations chief, was involved in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 US sailors. The US obtained the information leading to Quso from a Saudi operative who had penetrated AQAP.
The US also killed Mohammed Saeed al Umda (a.k.a. Ghareeb al Taizi) in an April 22 drone strike on a convoy in the Al Samadah area of Marib province. Prior to the downfall of the Taliban regime in 2001, he had attended the Al Farouq military training camp in Afghanistan. Umda served as a member of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan before returning to Yemen, and was involved in the October 2002 suicide attack on the French oil tanker Limburg. He escaped from a Yemeni jail in 2006.
US intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a direct threat to the homeland. The latest AQAP plot against the West, involving an underwear bomb that is nearly undetectable and was to be detonated on an airliner, was foiled earlier this year. The terror group has planned multiple attacks against targets in the US. A strike in Yemen last year killed both Anwar al Awlaki, the radical, US-born cleric who plotted attacks against the US, and Samir Khan, another American who served as a senior AQAP propagandist.
Updated on Sept. 3 to note claim that 13 civilians were reported killed in the Rada’a strike.