The US killed three al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in a drone strike in Yemen today. The strike is the first recorded in Yemen in more than five weeks. The target of the attack was a senior AQAP commander who in the past said he is not afraid of dying in a US airstrike.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired a missile at a vehicle near Mayfa in Shabwa province. An AQAP operative known as Mujahid Jaber Saleh al Shabwani and two other AQAP operatives are reported to have been killed, The Hindu reported.
Al Shabwani was on a list of 25 wanted al-Qaeda operatives that was released by the Yemeni government in August 2013. He was among those who are wanted for attacking Yemeni government and security installations.
Abdul Razzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who is closely tied to AQAP and who often releases the group’s propaganda, reported on his Facebook account that the target of today’s airstrike was Sheikh Ma’moun Abdulhamid Hatem, an AQAP leader and cleric who is also a tribal leader in Ibb province. Hatem “escaped,” according to al Jamal. US officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not comment on the target of the strike, but one intelligence official said Hatem is “a person of interest.”
Hatem was interviewed by al Jamal in March 2013, and said he did not fear death from US drones as martyrdom while waging jihad is welcomed. Hatem also said that the drone strikes were increasing local support for AQAP.
AQAP is known to operate in Shabwa province. Most of the province was under AQAP control between May 2011 and May 2012.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
Today’s strike is the first recorded in Yemen since Jan. 23. The US has launched two other strikes in Yemen this year.
The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013 versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.
The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The plot led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The plot involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.
Between July 27, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt the plot and take out AQAP’s top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir for Al Baydah province, during that time period.
For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2014.