US drones killed eight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters, including three foreign “Arabs,” in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa late last night.
The unmanned Predators or the more heavily armed Reapers struck a vehicle transporting five Yemeni and three foreign Arabs from unspecified countries from Shabwa to Marib province, a Yemeni tribal chief told AFP. No senior AQAP leaders have been reported killed in the strike.
“Al Qaeda militants were aboard a vehicle on their way from Shabwa to (nearby) Marib province when a US drone fired a missile at their vehicle, killing them all,” the tribal chief told the news agency. He also said that the unmanned strike aircraft were circling the “Al Qaeda strongholds” of Rawdah, Huta, and Azzan.
In a separate strike, Yemen’s defense ministry claimed that its aircraft killed 16 AQAP fighters in the town of Al Koud near Zinjibar in Abyan province, AFP reported. Al Koud is the scene of a major AQAP victory that took place in early March, when the terror group attacked a Yemeni Army base that housed a mechanized battalion. The AQAP fighters overran the base and decimated the battalion, killing 185 soldiers, wounding 150, and capturing 73 more.
Today’s strike in Shabwa is the first by the US this month. The US launched at least six strikes against AQAP in Yemen in March; the last strike was on March 30. During the period of March 9-13, the US hit AQAP targets two times each in the cities of Ja’ar in Abyan province and Al Baydah in Baydah province. The March 9 strike in Ja’ar killed Abdulwahhab al Homaiqani, an AQAP commander in the city, and 16 of his fighters. No senior AQAP leaders were reported to have been killed in the other strikes.
The CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have carried out at least 24 air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009, including yesterday’s strike in Al Baydah. Other recent airstrikes are believed to have been carried out by the US also, but little evidence has emerged to directly link the attacks to the US. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2012.]
Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 18 airstrikes in Yemen. Eight of those strikes have taken place so far in 2012.
This year, the US appears to be targeting AQAP foot soldiers in an effort to support Yemeni military operations. Only one of this year’s eight strikes has killed a senior AQAP operative in Yemen. On Jan. 31, US drones killed Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani near the city of Lawder in Abyan province. Fatahani was involved in the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden that killed 17 US sailors, as well as the bombing that damaged the Limburg oil tanker in 2002. AQAP said that Fatahani had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The pace of the US airstrikes has increased as AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, have taken control of vast areas of southern Yemen. AQAP controls the cities of Zinjibar, Al Koud, Ja’ar, and Shaqra in Abyan province. The terror group also controls Azzan in Shabwa province. AQAP seized control of Rada’a in Baydah in January but later withdrew after negotiating a peace agreement with the local government.
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. A strike in Yemen last year killed Anwar al Awlaki, the radical, US-born cleric who plotted attacks against the US, and Samir Khan, another American who served as a senior AQAP propagandist. Abdul Rahman al Awlaki, Anwar’s son, was killed in a separate strike in the country.