Center for Strategic Communication

The US killed two suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters today in the first drone strike since mid-December, when 15 civilians were reported to have been killed in another US attack in central Yemen.

The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired missiles at a pickup truck as it traveled near the town of Shibam in the eastern province of Hadramout today, Gulf News reported. The vehicle was destroyed and the bodies of those killed have not been identified, according to Agence France Presse.

No senior AQAP leaders or operatives are reported to have been killed at this time. AQAP does not comment on each strike that is carried out in Yemen.

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 41 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, or 17%, took place in the province. And so far this year, six of the 26 strikes in Yemen, or 23%, have occurred in Hadramout.

Today’s strike is the first recorded in Yemen since Dec. 12, when US drones accidentally killed 15 civilians as they traveled in a wedding party in Rada’a in the central province of Al Baydah. Yemeni officials said that the strike targeted Shawqi Ali Ahmad al Badani, a wanted midlevel AQAP commander. Al Badani is said to be linked to the al Qaeda plot that resulted in the shuttering of US embassies and diplomatic facilities worldwide. US officials claimed that no civilians died in the strike, and that between nine and 12 AQAP fighters were killed.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

Today’s strike is the third in Yemen this month, and the third since Dec. 6, when AQAP penetrated security in a major attack at Yemen’s Ministry of Defense in Sana’a. The suicide assault resulted in the deaths of 52 people, including foreign doctors and nurses, and 11 AQAP fighters. AQAP claimed that the assault targeted the US-run “operation rooms” for the drone program in Yemen.

The US has launched 26 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year. Despite an 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 41 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.

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.

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.