The US launched its third drone strike in Yemen in the past five days, killing five al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in an area in eastern Yemen that is said to be under the control of the terrorist group.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers launched a pair of missiles at a target in the Qatan Valley in Hadramout province today, killing five “al Qaeda militants,” and wounding three others, Xinhua reported. Reuters said the missiles struck a car, while Xinhua reported that the strike took place at an “al Qaeda-held site in the Qatan valley” that is “used for training terrorists.”
No senior al Qaeda operatives or leaders are reported to have been killed at this time. The identities of the al Qaeda operatives who were killed have not been disclosed.
Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden’s family, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years.
In 2012, the US stepped up drone strikes against AQAP in Hadramout. Prior to May 2012, there were zero US drone strikes in the province. From mid-May until the end of 2012, the US launched seven attacks in Hadramout. Seven of the 41 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, or 17%, have taken place in the province. Today’s strike in Hadramout is the first in the province so far this year.
Since losing control of large areas of Abyan and Shabwa, AQAP has spread out into the provinces of Aden, Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana’a. Of the 35 drones strikes recorded by The Long War Journal over the past 12 months, 28 have taken place in the provinces of Aden, Baydah, Al Jawf, Damar, Hadramout, Hodeida, Ibb, Marib, Saada, and Sana’a.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 15 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year, but the pace of the strikes has decreased since last year. In 2012, the US launched 41 drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia. The previous year, the US launched 10 drone and air strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.
The US has stepped up attacks in Yemen; today’s strike is the third in five days. Two days ago, on July 30, US drones killed three AQAP fighters, including a Saudi operative, in a strike in Shabwa province. The previous strike, on July 27, which is said to have killed six AQAP fighters in the Al Mahfad area in Abyan province, broke a seven-week pause in drone activity in Yemen.
Although six senior AQAP operatives, including the group’s deputy emir, Said al Shihri, were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012, the group’s top leadership cadre remains intact. Just two weeks ago, AQAP confirmed that al Shihri, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed; he is thought to have died or to have been seriously wounded following a strike in October 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 Yemeni 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, 2012]. Obama administration officials have claimed, however, that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP’s local insurgency against the Yemeni government.
For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013.