Center for Strategic Communication

Two al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters were killed today in the first recorded US drone strike in Yemen or Pakistan this year.

The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired missiles at a vehicle as it traveled in the Al Qutn area of Yemen’s Hadramout province, killing two suspected AQAP fighters, Reuters reported.

The identities of the two AQAP fighters have not been disclosed. No senior AQAP operatives or leaders are reported to have been killed. AQAP has not commented on today’s strike.

Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. AQAP has regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to government forces starting in late spring 2012. In May 2013, 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. In 2013, six of the 26 strikes in Yemen, or 23%, occurred in Hadramout.

Four of the past five drone strikes have taken place in Hadramout. Two of the strikes hit targets in Al Qutn; the other two strikes occurred in Ghayl Bawazir and Shibam.

Today’s strike is the second 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. The US has opened an investigation into the claims that civilians were killed in the Dec. 12 strike.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

Today’s strike is the fourth in Yemen 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 pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013 versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The plot 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.

Between July 27, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt the plot and take out AQAP’s top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir for Al Baydah province, during that time period.

For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2014.