The US launched its first recorded drone strike in Yemen in nearly two months, killing three suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in the central province of Marib. The strike takes place as AQAP has been battling Yemeni forces for control of the eastern province of Hadramout.
The remotely piloted Reapers struck a compound in the Wadi Abida area today, a local official told Reuters. The names of the three suspected fighters were not disclosed. A “security official” confirmed that an airstrike took place in Marib and killed three people, but the official “did not specify if it was a US or Yemeni aircraft involved in the strike,” The Associated Press reported.
The Wadi Abida of Marib province is a known haven for AQAP in central Yemen. The US has conducted six other drone strikes in Wadi Abida since October 2012. Three of those strikes took place this year, two occurred in 2013, and one was conducted in 2012. According to data compiled by The Long War Journal, a total of 31 AQAP fighters and two civilians are reported to have been killed in the seven strikes in Wadi Abida.
The last strike in Wadi Abida took place on June 4. A local commander known as Jafar al Shabwani and two fighters are said to have been killed.
Fighting rages in Hadramout
Today’s drone strike in Marib takes place as Yemeni security forces and AQAP are battling for control over the eastern province of Hadramout.
Earlier this week, an unnamed Yemeni military official claimed that AQAP is in effective control of Hadramout province. “Local authorities in Hadramout are non-existent and Al Qaeda is running it,” he said. A senior general later denied the report.
The Yemeni military said it killed 25 AQAP fighters on Aug. 6-7 while battling to protect the city of Seyoun in Hadramout province. The military also sent reinforcements to the town of Qatn in Hadramout after heavy fighting in the area.
AQAP responded by kidnapping and executing 14 soldiers who were traveling on a bus from Hadramout to Sana’a. AQAP also threatened to “punish” prosecutors and other legal officials in Hadramout who rule against the group.
The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Hadramout province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. AQAP has regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa to government forces starting in late spring 2012. In May 2013, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in the Ghayl Bawazir area. In July, AQAP distributed leaflets in Seyoun that said the jihadist group is establishing an emirate in Hadramout and will impose sharia, or Islamic law.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 15 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today’s strike is the first since June 14, when the US killed an AQAP commander known as Musaad al Habashi and four fighters in a strike on a vehicle in Shabwa.
The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14. The timing of the strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
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 scheme, which led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.
Between July 27, 2013, 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 AQAP’s plan and take out its 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 video released earlier this year that featured Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s overall general manager, the terrorist leader 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.