The US killed a local al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula commander and two fighters in the first recorded drone strike in Yemen so far this year. The US stepped up the Predator and Reapers strikes in Yemen at the end of December after a seven-week-long pause.
The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers killed Mukbel Abbad and two fighters in an attack today as their vehicle traveled in the town of Rada’a in the central Yemen province of Baydah, according to AFP.
Yemeni officials said that Abbad, a senior AQAP leader in the province, was the brother-in-law of Tariq al Dhahab, who was the top AQAP leader in Baydah before his death early last year in a feud with his brother Hazam, a senior tribal leader in the town. Hazam was concerned that Tariq’s affiliation with AQAP would incur the wrath of the Yemeni government.
AQAP has increased its presence in Baydah province over the past year, and the US has pursued the terror group with drone strikes. On May 28, 2012, the US targeted Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir in the province, and his brother Nabil, who is also a senior leader in the terror group, in a strike in the town of Rada’a.
Kaid took control of AQAP in Baydah after the death of his brother Tariq. Before he was killed, Tariq had seized control of Baydah, raised al Qaeda’s banner, sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, and warned that “the Islamic Caliphate is coming.”
Kaid and Nabil were tasked with regrouping AQAP’s forces in Baydah after Tariq’s death. The two leaders are also the brothers-in-law of slain AQAP leader and ideologue Anwar al Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in the fall of 2011.
Increase in strikes in Yemen since the end of December 2012
The US has now conducted five drone strikes in Yemen since Dec. 24, 2012. Prior to the Dec. 24 attack, the last recorded attack by the US in Yemen took place on Nov. 7, 2012. Three of the strikes since Dec. 24 have taken place in and around Rada’a, and two more occurred in the eastern province of Hadramout, another AQAP redoubt.
On Dec. 24, US drones killed Abdullah Hussein al Waeli, a Yemeni operative who escaped from prison two years ago, and a Jordanian in a strike in the village of Maneseeh outside of Rada’a. And on Dec. 29, the drones again struck in Maneseeh, killing AQAP commander Saleh Mohammed al Ameri and two fighters.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 42 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in 2012. 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.
Last year’s total of 42 strikes was a marked increase from 2011, when just 10 strikes were recorded in Yemen.
Five senior AQAP operatives were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012. The US has targeted both senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, and low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the 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]. Obama administration officials have claimed that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland.
Since December 2009, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 56 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including the strike that took place today. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013.]
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 2012, 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 52 airstrikes in Yemen. Over the past 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.
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 on 2011 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.