The US targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s top bomb maker in one of two strikes that took place in Yemen over the past two days. Unnamed Yemeni officials have speculated that Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri, who has built innovative bombs for the Yemeni terror group, may have been killed, but the reports are unconfirmed.
The strike that targeted Asiri took place after midnight last night on a highway between the districts of Markhah and Bayhan in Shabwa province, according to Barakish. The unmanned Predators or Reapers targeted a car as it traveled on the highway, and killed four AQAP fighters.
Asiri is reported to be among them, but his death has not been confirmed by AQAP or Yemeni officials. Initial reports suggest that the helicopters picked up four bodies, presumably to identify them. Although Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi sent a message of “thanks, praise, and appreciation” to the Yemeni antiterrorism unit for carrying out the strike, eyewitnesses confirmed that US drones targeted and fired on the AQAP vehicle.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that Asiri is at the top of the list of the most dangerous AQAP leaders and is actively being targeted. Asiri is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and was behind the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attack as well as the design for an underwear bomb that is nearly undetectable and was to be detonated on an airliner. Asiri has said that he has trained other operatives in AQAP to build bombs.
Drones target AQAP training camp in the Al Mahfad district
In the other strike, which took place yesterday, US drones struck an AQAP training camp in the Al Mahfad district of Abyan province. Reports in the Arabic press claim that more than 30 AQAP militants were killed in the strike aimed at a training camp hidden in the mountainous areas between Shabwa and Abyan provinces. A source in Yemen’s Security Council said the strike was carried out after Yemeni intelligence received information regarding the presence of AQAP operatives at the camp who were actively planning to attack vital military and civilian installations.
The same Yemeni source said that AQAP operatives from various nationalities were killed in the drone strike. Local eyewitnesses said they had noticed a big gathering of suspected AQAP militants in the area of the camp the night before. They also claimed that following the strike AQAP militants hastily collected the bodies of those killed.
Reports in the Arabic media also describe a Yemeni air force bombardment of the camp that lasted for a few hours after the drone strike.
In related news, in the evening before the strike on the training camp, the Yemeni Defense Ministry arrested 10 AQAP militants in Shabwa. In an official statement issued after the third strike this weekend, authorities said the 10 militants were headed to the training camp that was targeted in Al Mahfad.
The US also hit AQAP training camps in the Al Mahfad area on April 1.
The Al Mahfad district is a known stronghold for AQAP. In the spring of 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters and leaders regrouped in the Al Mahfad area after being driven from cities such as Zinjibar, Jaar, Lawdar, and Shaqra during a Yemeni military offensive that began in the spring of 2012 [see Threat Matrix report, AQAP regroups in Abyan province]. AQAP controlled the cities in Abyan, as well as other cities and towns in neighboring Shabwa province, after launching its own offensive in 2011.
AQAP remains entrenched in the Al Mahfad area despite several Yemeni military operations that attempted to dislodge the terror group. The US launched three drone strikes in Al Mahfad in 2013; one in May, one in June, and one in July.
New details emerge on April 19 strike
The US has launched three strikes in Yemen over the weekend. In the first strike, on April 19 in the province of Baydah, 15 AQAP fighters and five civilians are reported to have been killed when the drones hit a truck as it traveled on a road linking Souma’a district to Baydah City, the provincial capital.
Local media reported that the targeted vehicle was carrying a large amount of dynamite and that the strike killed all of the fighters on board. Reports also confirmed the deaths of at least three civilians who were riding in an adjacent vehicle at the time of the strike.
A military source told the Arabic media that prominent leaders in AQAP had been killed in the strike, including Abu Osama Al Hasni, Akram al Hafza, Seif Mohammad Seif Abd al Rahman al Sakhra, Ali Saleh al Khabani, and Adham Ali Mohsen. AQAP has not confirmed the deaths of any senior leaders.
In related news, residents of Azzan district in neighboring Shabwa province told reporters that “elements of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have reappeared in the city.” They also claimed that an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula publication had been distributed warning local tribesmen and residents of Azzan against joining the Popular Committees.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 11 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Four of those strikes took place this month, four of took place in March, and three in January.
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 Baydah province, during that time period.
AQAP and al Qaeda still seek to conduct attacks against the US. In a recent AQAP video featuring Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s overall general manager, he said America remains a target.
“O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi said.
Wuhayshi made the statement in the open to a gathering of more than 100 people.
For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2014.