The US launched two more airstrikes in Yemen, killing six more al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters as part of an effort to disrupt a global plot to target Western facilities and allied countries.
The first strike took place in the eastern province of Hadramout, a bastion for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers struck a vehicle in the Al Ayoon area, The Associated Press reported. Three AQAP fighters are said to have been killed in the latest attack.
The second strike killed three more AQAP fighters, in the Al Qutn area of Hadramout, AP reported. The three fighters were killed after drones struck their vehicle.
No senior al Qaeda operatives or leaders are reported to have been killed at this time. The identities of the al Qaeda operatives who were killed have not been disclosed.
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 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. Today’s strikes in Hadramout are the second and third in the province so far this year; the last strike was on Aug. 1.
Yesterday, Yemeni officials claimed that AQAP was plotting to attack Mukallah, the provincial capital of Hadramout, as well as the Al Dabbah oil and Balhaf gas export facilities, Yemeni officials claimed. AQAP fighters were to hit the city and facilities with fighters disguised as policemen. Today, Yemeni officials are distancing themselves from the claim.
The US has launched four strikes in Yemen in the past two days. Yesterday, US drones killed seven AQAP fighters in a strike in Shabwa. And late last night, the US killed four more fighters and two civilians in Marib.
The US has stepped up attacks in Yemen; there have been eight strikes in Yemen in the past 12 days. The location of the strikes highlights AQAP’s geographical reach in Yemen: three of the strikes took place in Hadramout, two in Shabwa, two in Marib, and one in Abyan.
On Aug. 6, the US killed an AQAP operative known as Saleh al-Tays al-Waeli and three other fighters in Marib. Al Waeli’s name appeared on a list, published on Aug. 5, of Yemen’s 25 most-wanted terrorists who were plotting to conduct attacks in the capital of Sana’a and in a number of other governorates.
On Aug. 1, US drones killed five AQAP fighters in the eastern province of Hadramout. On July 30, US drones killed three AQAP fighters, including a Saudi operative, in a strike in Shabwa province; a mid-level AQAP commander is reported to have been killed in the strike. The previous strike, on July 27, which is said to have killed six AQAP fighters in the Al Mahfad area in Abyan province, broke a seven-week pause in drone activity in Yemen.
The recent spike in attacks is related to the terror warning by the US that led to the closure of diplomatic facilities in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. US officials said they have intercepted communications between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s leader and al Qaeda’s general manager.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 20 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. Despite the recent burst of activity, the pace of the strikes has still 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. Just two weeks 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 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.