Center for Strategic Communication

The US accidentally killed a civilian in the second drone strike that targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the eastern Yemeni province of Hadramout so far this year.

The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers killed a farmer in the village of Houta near Shibam, according to Reuters. “Witnesses said the farmer was killed by shrapnel from two rockets fired by the drone early in the morning as he walked home in the village,” the wire service reported.

The identity of the AQAP operative or operatives targeted in today’s strike was not disclosed. AQAP is known to operate openly in Hadramout province.

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.

AQAP has launched a series of assassinations and complex attacks against Yemeni security forces in the province. In September 2013, a platoon-sized AQAP assault team stormed a base run by the Interior Ministry’s paramilitary Central Security Organization in the city of Mukallah, the capital of Hadramout province. Several soldiers were killed and the base was held by AQAP for days before it was retaken by commandos.

US strikes in Hadramout increase

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. Both of the drone strikes recorded in Yemen this year have taken place in the eastern province.

Five of the past six drone strikes have been executed in Hadramout. Two of the strikes were carried out in Al Qutn; two more occurred in Shibham; and other hit a target in Ghayl Bawazir.

Today’s strike is the third 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 fifth 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.