Center for Strategic Communication

The US killed three al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters, including a local commander, in the first recorded drone strike in more than three weeks.

The strike, which took place last evening in the Maghifar area of the Wadi Abida district in Yemen’s central province of Marib, targeted a pickup truck, according to local reports. Yemeni tribal leaders said that Jafar al Shabwani, a local AQAP commander from the Al Shabwan tribe of Wadi Abida, and two of his fighters were killed in the airstrike.

AQAP has not released an official statement on the strike or a martyrdom statement for al Shabwani.

Wadi Abida has long been considered an AQAP stronghold and recruiting base in Marib, and local tribes regularly provide AQAP militants with protection and cover.

The US has conducted six other drone strikes in Wadi Abida since October 2012. Three of those strikes took place this year, two occurred in 2012, and one was conducted in 2012. Thirty-one AQAP fighters and two civilians are reported to have been killed in the six strikes, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal.

The Wadi Abida district was also the location of the last recorded drone strike in Yemen. On May 12, the remotely piloted Reapers or Predators targeted a vehicle as it was driving in the village of Husoun al-Jalal. Six AQAP fighters are thought to have been killed in the attack.

Last night’s strike highlights a continuing trend of the US targeting local AQAP commanders and fighters who are waging a local insurgency against 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].

This contradicts a US Department of Justice white paper that claimed the drone program will target only those AQAP operatives who “present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States.”

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched 13 strikes in Yemen so far this year. In addition to last night’s strike, one strike took place in May, and there were four April, four in March, and three in January. The uptick in strikes in March and April coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

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 Baydah province, during that time period.

AQAP and al Qaeda still seek to conduct attacks against the US. In a recent AQAP video featuring Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s overall general manager, he said America remains a target.

“O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi said.

Wuhayshi made the statement in the open to a gathering of more than 100 people.

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