Center for Strategic Communication

US drones launched the first strike in Yemen in 49 days, killing six “militants” in an attack today on a convoy in a southern town controlled by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers launched missiles at a vehicle carrying AQAP fighters in the Al Mahfad area in the southern province of Abyan, The Associated Press reported.

The exact target of today’s strike was not disclosed. Six members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were killed in the airstrike; three of them were identified but their names have not been disclosed, according to AP. No senior AQAP operatives or leaders are reported to have been killed.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters and leaders have regrouped in the Al Mahfad area after being driven from cities such as Zinjibar, Jaar, Lawdar, and Shaqra during a Yemeni military offensive that began in the spring of 2012 [see Threat Matrix report, AQAP regroups in Abyan province]. AQAP controlled the cities in Abyan, as well as other cities and towns in neighboring Shabwa province, after launching its own offensive in the spring of 2011.

The US has launched two other drone strikes in Al Mahfad. The last attack took place on June 1. Eight militants were reported to have been killed in the strike. The previous attack took place on May 18. Four AQAP fighters were killed when the drones launched missiles against a vehicle carrying grenades and suicide belts.

US expands the location of drone strikes in Yemen

Since losing control of large areas of Abyan and Shabwa, AQAP has spread out into the provinces of Aden, Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana’a. Of the 33 drones strikes recorded by The Long War Journal over the past 12 months, 27 have taken place in the provinces of Aden, Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana’a.

The US has launched 13 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. The last strike took place on June 9, killing an AQAP commander known as Saleh Hassan Jredan and his brother and four other fighters.

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. Just 12 days ago, AQAP confirmed that al Shihri, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed; he is thought to have died or to have been seriously wounded following a strike in October 2012.

The US has targeted both senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, and 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.