In a strike near the Yemeni capital of Sana’a last night, US drones killed an al Qaeda commander involved in the attack on the US Embassy in Sana’a in 2008, along with two fighters. The strike near Sana’a and the previous one in Saada in northern Yemen indicate that the US is expanding drone operations from the traditional hunting grounds in the south.
The unmanned Predators or Reapers fired missiles at a vehicle traveling near Sana’a late last night. The exact location of the strike is in dispute; Xinhua reported that the airstrike took place near the village of Sayyan, about 25 miles outside of Sana’a, while AFP claimed the attack occurred near the village of Beit al Ahmar, about nine miles from the capital.
One Yemeni official described the attack as “a Yemeni-U.S. joint airstrike operation,” while another said that “the raid was not carried out by any Yemeni warplane,” Xinhua reported.
The strike was certainly carried out by the US-operated Predators or Reapers. US military and intelligence officials have repeatedly told The Long War Journal that the Yemeni air force does not have the ability to hit moving targets in a nighttime strike. And in early October, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi admitted that the nighttime strikes were carried out by the US “because the Yemeni Air Force cannot carry out missions at night.”
Adnan al Qadhi, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula commander who operates in Sana’a, and two of his bodyguards, Rabiee Lahib and Radwan al Hashidi, were confirmed to have been killed in the strike, Yemeni officials said. Al Qadhi’s family told Abdul Razzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who is closely linked to AQAP, that Qadhi and the two bodyguards were killed in the airstrike.
Al Qadhi is “a former jihadist fighter in Afghanistan and al Qaeda member” who is wanted for the Sept. 17, 2008 complex attack on the US Embassy in Sana’a, according to AFP. More than 16 people were killed after terrorists detonated multiple bombs and then launched a ground attack in an attempt to breach the compound. Al Qaeda also deployed snipers dressed in Yemeni military uniforms during the attack.
Last night’s strike is the first recorded in Sana’a since the US stepped up air and missile attacks against terrorist operatives in 2009. The US is expanding its use of drones against AQAP in Yemen; prior strikes have focused on the network in southern Yemen. But the previous strike, on Oct. 28, took place in Saada in northern Yemen. Four AQAP fighters, including two Saudis, were killed in the attack that targeted a compound of a wanted al Qaeda commander.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 37 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, four in October, 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 51 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including last night’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 47 airstrikes in Yemen. This year, the US has been 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.
Five senior AQAP operatives, including Sheikh Abu Zubeir ‘Adil al’Abab, have been killed in the 36 strikes so far this year. On Aug. 31, Khaled Batis, a wanted AQAP operative who is said to have been the mastermind of 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 information leading to Quso was obtained by the US 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.