Media outlets in Australia and New Zealand today reported that two Australian nationals, including one who was a New Zealand citizen as well, were killed in a US predator drone strike in Yemen on Nov. 19. Last year’s airstrike took place in Yemen’s eastern Hadramout province, a known jihadist haven, and targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters driving in the Ghayl Bawazir area near Mukallah, the provincial capital.
The two Australian nationals killed in the airstrike were identified as Christopher Harvard of Townsville, Australia, and Muslim bin John, a New Zealand dual citizen who reportedly changed his name by deed poll either in Australia or New Zealand. Shortly after the strike, Twitter accounts associated with AQAP eulogized five fighters, named as Abu Habib al Yemeni, Abu Salma al Russi, Abu Suhaib al Australi, Waddah al Hadramawti, and Hammam al Misri. Abu Suhaib al Australi was apparently the alias used by Muslim bin John, and Abu Salma al Russi is believed to be Christopher Harvard’s alias, although he is mistakenly identified as a Russian.
Sources told The Australian that Abu Habib al Yemeni appears to have been the primary target of the airstrike. Abu Habib had a long history of fighting for al Qaeda. He traveled to Afghanistan in 1996 following al Qaeda’s departure from Sudan and was known to be a companion of Osama bin Laden. Following the drone strike, US officials notified Australia about the possibility that Australian citizens were killed as “collateral damage.”
A senior counterterrorism source told The Australian that the two Australian nationals were believed to be foot soldiers for AQAP and that they might have been involved in kidnapping Westerners for ransom.
Christopher Harvard’s stepfather, Neil Dowrick, said that he had received a letter from the Australian Federal Police claiming that his stepson was killed in a counterterrorism operation and had been buried in Yemen on April 11. It is not conclusively known when Harvard arrived in Yemen, but intelligence officials believe that he entered the country in 2011. Mr. Dowrick said that his stepson had claimed he was going to Yemen to teach English. Following Harvard’s arrival in Yemen, he was apparently monitored by intelligence agencies.
Less information is known at this point about the dual citizen named Muslim bin John. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said that bin John had attended a terrorist training camp and that he had been subject to a New Zealand intelligence warrant authorizing agencies to monitor him. Key also confirmed that like Christopher Harvard, Muslim bin John was buried in Yemen. Yemeni authorities sent DNA samples, including tissue and bone fragments, from all five victims to the Australian Federal Police.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade emphasized that Australia had no prior awareness of the operation and was not involved in it in any way. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he believes that the November 2013 US airstrike was justified despite the loss of life “given that three of the people killed were well-known al Qaeda operatives,” according to the Associated Press.
The US conducted 26 drone attacks against AQAP targets inside Yemen last year, and has carried out eight more strikes so far in 2014. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2014]. Although the Obama administration claims that it targets only AQAP leaders and operatives who “present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States,” a study of the pattern of attacks in Yemen by The Long War Journal shows that low-level fighters and local commanders are often targeted in the strikes.
Australians wage jihad over seas
Australians are known to wage jihad overseas, particularly in Syria, where more than 120 Aussies are believed to be fighting in the ranks of rebel and Islamist groups.
An Australian known as Abu Sulayman al Muhajir serves as a high-ranking sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Prior to traveling to Syria sometime last year, Sulayman lived in Australia and encouraged Muslims to wage jihad inside Syria. Sulayman is privy to al Qaeda’s strategy and inner workings in Syria and is attempting to mediate a dispute with the rival Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.