US drones conducted their first strike against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen in nearly a month, killing four “militants.”
The unmanned Predators or Reapers fired several missiles at a vehicle as it was traveling in the Maqbala area in Shabwa province, killing four “heavily armed” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives, a Yemeni official and residents told Reuters. Two more “militants” were wounded and another escaped.
The exact target of today’s strike has not been disclosed; no senior AQAP leaders have been reported killed in the attack.
The strike is the first recorded in Yemen since Sept. 5, when the unmanned warplanes launched eight missiles at a compound in the Wadi al Ain area of Hadramout province, killing six al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives. Said al Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee and the current deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was rumored to have been in the strike in Wadi al Ain, but the report was never confirmed. An unnamed Yemeni official said DNA tests concluded that al Shihri was not among those killed in the attack.
Today’s strike takes place just six days after Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi praised the US drone strikes in Yemen during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you’re aiming at,” Hadi said, according to The New York Times.
Hadi confirmed what US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal several times in the past: that the US conducted the nighttime strikes “because the Yemeni Air Force cannot carry out missions at night.”
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 33 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen so far this year: one in January, six in March, six more in April, nine in May, two in June, one in July, five in August, two in September, and one so far this month. 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.
Since December 2009, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 47 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including today’s strike. [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 increased as AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, took over vast areas of southern Yemen starting at the end of May 2011. AQAP seized control of the cities and towns of Zinjibar, Al Koud, Jaar, and Shaqra in Abyan province, and Azzan in Shabwa province.
In May of this year, the Yemeni military launched an offensive to retake the cities and towns held by AQAP. Hundreds of AQAP fighters, Yemeni soldiers, and civilians have been reported killed during fighting that liberated Zinjibar, Jaar, Shaqra, and Azzan.
Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 43 airstrikes in Yemen. This year, the US appears to be targeting both AQAP leaders and foot soldiers in an effort to support Yemeni military operations against the terror group. AQAP had taken control of vast areas in southern Yemen and had been expanding operations against the government, with raids on military bases in locations previously thought to be outside the terror group’s control.
Four senior AQAP operatives have been killed in the 33 strikes so far this year. The most recent strike that killed a senior AQAP leader took place on Aug. 31. Khaled Batis, a wanted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative who is said to have been the mastermind of the the 2002 bombing of the French oil tanker Limburg, was killed in that attack.
On May 6, the US killed Fahd al Quso in a drone attack in Shabwa province. Quso, who has been described as AQAP’s external operations chief, was involved in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 US sailors. The US obtained the information leading to Quso from a Saudi operative who had penetrated AQAP.
The US killed Mohammed Saeed al Umda (a.k.a. Ghareeb al Taizi) in an April 22 drone strike on a convoy in the Al Samadah area of Marib province. Prior to the downfall of the Taliban regime in 2001, he had attended the Al Farouq military training camp in Afghanistan. Umda served as a member of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan before returning to Yemen, and was involved in the October 2002 suicide attack on the French oil tanker Limburg. He escaped from a Yemeni jail in 2006.
And on Jan. 31, US drones killed Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani near the city of Lawdar in Abyan province. Fatahani was also involved in the suicide attack on the USS Cole, as well as the bombing that damaged the Limburg oil tanker in 2002. AQAP said that Fatahani had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a direct threat to the homeland. The latest AQAP plot against the West, involving an underwear bomb that is nearly undetectable and was to be detonated on an airliner, was foiled earlier this year. The terror group has planned multiple attacks against targets in the US. A strike in Yemen last year killed both 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.