Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters overran a military checkpoint in southern Yemen, killing 17 soldiers during an intense battle that also resulted in the deaths of 13 AQAP fighters.
AQAP launched the attack against a checkpoint in the town of Al Milah in Lahj province earlier today. After overrunning the checkpoint and killing 17 soldiers, the AQAP fighters seized two tanks and other weapons systems, according to Reuters. The fighting was so intense that residents of Al Milah said the Yemeni Army “had begun distributing machineguns among them so they could help beat back the militants,” the news agency reported.
Yemeni warplanes killed three AQAP fighters while attacking one of the tanks; it is unclear if the tank was destroyed. AQAP fighters fell back to the city of Ja’ar in neighboring Abyan province. Ja’ar is one of several cities under AQAP control.
Ansar al Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, AQAP’s political front in Yemen, claimed credit for the attack in text message, according to Reuters.
“The holy warriors of Ansar al-Sharia this morning carried out the raid of dignity on the al-Hurur military checkpoint in Abyan, resulting in the deaths of around 30 [soldiers],” the AQAP statement claimed.
Over the past month, AQAP, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has been flexing its muscles in the south. On March 4, a large AQAP force attacked a Yemeni Army base in Al Koud in Abyan that housed a mechanized battalion. The AQAP fighters overran the base and decimated the battalion, killing 185 soldiers, wounding 150, and capturing at least 55 more. AQAP also seized heavy weapons, including tanks, during the assault.
Background on AQAP and Ansar al Sharia
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting under the banner of the Ansar al Sharia. Ansar al Sharia constitutes “AQAP’s version of the Islamic State of Iraq,” which is al Qaeda’s political and military front in Iraq, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal last year.
“Ansar al Sharia is pulling in allied Islamist groups and sympathetic tribes into its orbit, and seeks to implement an Islamic State much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan and al Qaeda attempted in Iraq,” the official said.
In an official statement released by Ansar al Sharia in May 2011, the group said it wishes to take control of “all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities” in Yemen.
AQAP is seeking to build an army to back up its Islamic state. In 2010, Qasim al Raymi, the military commander for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Mohammed Said al Umdah Gharib al T’aizzi, a senior AQAP military commander in southern Yemen, both claimed that the terror group had raised a 12,000-fighter-strong army in the southern Yemeni provinces. Yemeni officials recently told Al Hayah that “al Qaeda fighters in Zinjibar (the capital of Abyan) number in the hundreds, and perhaps exceed 2,000 gunmen.”
The terror group continues to use al Qaeda’s tactic of suicide bombings. In August 2011, Ansar al Sharia released a videotape of a suicide bomber attacking a Yemeni armored column as it traveled from Aden to Zinjibar.
AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil in Yemen to seize control of vast areas of the Yemeni south. Since the onset of large anti-government protests in March 2011, AQAP has openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj provinces. Government forces have withdrawn from several major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. Zinjibar, Al Koud, Ja’ar, and Shaqra in Abyan province, and Azzan in Shabwah province are currently under AQAP control. AQAP seized control of Rada’a in Baydah province in January but later withdrew after negotiating a peace agreement with the local government. Yemenis have described the southern port city of Aden as ripe for an AQAP takeover.
The US in turn has taken advantage of the security vacuum in Yemen to step up attacks against AQAP’s top leaders and its network. The US killed two American AQAP propagandists, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a Predator airstrike in September 2011, and targeted AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi and media emir Ibrahim al Bana. Wuhayshi and al Bana are believed to have survived the strikes.
The drone program in Yemen was put on hold in October 2011 after Anwar al Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman, was killed in an airstrike that targeted al Bana. Abdul Rahman was a 16-year-old American citizen who had said he hoped “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it” just hours before he was killed, according to a Yemeni journalist.
The drone program was restarted in January, and has intensified this month. There have been six strikes in March, and seven strikes total this year. The US conducted 10 drone, air, and cruise missile strikes in all of 2011, and has carried out 27 strikes total since 2002 [for more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2012].
The pace of the US airstrikes has increased as AQAP has taken control of vast areas of southern Yemen. US intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a direct threat to the homeland. The terror group has plotted multiple attacks against targets in the US, including an attempt to blow up an airline over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.