The US reportedly killed seven al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in a drone strike early this morning in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa. The strike took place in the Azzan region of the province, located about 80 kilometers from the coast and long considered an AQAP stronghold in the country.
The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers attacked the AQAP fighters as they were gathered “under a group of trees” in Azzan, according to tribal sources. Some Yemeni military sources reported that the strike targeted AQAP fighters as they were driving a small truck through Azzan. The Yemeni Ministry of Defense claimed that the seven terrorists killed in the operation were in the process of planning an attack in the area using a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), a tactic of choice by AQAP.
Local and tribal sources also suggested that two additional strikes took place during the night between Nov. 11 and Nov. 12 between the towns of Azzan and Mayfaa in Shabwa. However, no information regarding those alleged attacks is forthcoming.
While the exact target of the strike has not been disclosed, and it is unclear if any senior AQAP leaders or operatives were among those killed or targeted, it appears the US launched the attack in support of Yemeni military operations against a local AQAP threat.
This morning’s operation highlights a continuing trend of the US targeting local AQAP commanders and fighters who are waging a local insurgency against 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].
This contradicts a US Department of Justice white paper that claimed the drone program will target only those AQAP operatives who “present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States.”
The US has carried out 21 strikes in Yemen so far this year; several of those strikes have targeted AQAP’s local network. The US ramped up its air campaign in Yemen in 2009, and has conducted 106 air and cruise missile strikes in the country since the program was expanded. Ten of those attacks took place in 2011, 41 in 2012, 26 in 2013, and 23 so far this year. Prior to 2009, the US launched one airstrike, against al Qaeda in Yemen in 2002.
The US continues to target AQAP, which is considered to be one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches, despite the virtual collapse of the Yemeni government. The US has relied on the central government and the Yemeni military and intelligence service to provide political support and targeting information in the campaign against the jihadist group’s network. But the expansion of Shiite Houthi rebel control into areas of central and western Yemen, the fracturing of Yemen’s security forces, and AQAP’s positioning of itself as the defender of Yemen’s Sunnis may make operations against the terrorist network more difficult over time.
The last strike, on Nov. 4, killed at least 20 AQAP fighters in Baydah province. The AQAP fighters were killed as they were battling the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran.