Two leaders from al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen are believed to have been killed in two recent US airstrikes. US Central Command, or CENTCOM, announced the strikes today and noted that al Qaeda remains “a significant threat.”
The first strike took place on Sept. 20 in Marib province and killed two “operatives” of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla, CENTCOM announced in a press release. The second strike occurred on Sept. 22 in the province of Al Baydah and “killed two other al Qaeda operatives.”
CENTCOM did not disclose the names of the al Qaeda operatives killed in the two airstrikes.
“These were al Qaeda operatives who continue to support their organization’s destabilizing effects in Yemen,” CENTCOM spokesman Major Josh Jacques said in the release. “US Central Command continues to protect the US, its allies and partners from these threats by denying Yemen as a haven for AQAP.”
CENTCOM maintained that “Al Qaeda and its associated movements remain a significant threat.”
The CENTCOM announcement closely matched press reporting from Yemen. On Sept. 24, Reuters reported that strikes took place in Marib and Al Baydah during the same time period. Yemen officials told the news agency that a local commander known as Abu Khaled al Sanaani and three of his fighters were killed in Marib, and a “regional commander” known as Abdallah al Sanaani was killed in Al Baydah.
AQAP has not announced the deaths of the two al Qaeda leaders.
According to CENTCOM, the US has launched 17 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen this year. The US military has begun to release information about “counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities” since President Obama directed the military and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to increase transparency on operations against jihadist groups outside of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, US government releases data on ‘counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities’.]
However, The Long War Journal has recorded 27 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in 2016. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that CENTCOM may not have released all of its data. It is also possible that the CIA instead executed some of the airstrikes, or that attacks attributed in the press to the US military were conducted by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
The US has ramped up assaults in Yemen this year after reaching a peak of 41 in 2012, when AQAP controlled significant territory in the south. The operations were halved (26 in 2013, 23 each in 2014 and 2015) until AQAP went back on the offensive and took control of large areas in southern Yemen at the end of 2015. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2016.]
The US military justified the attacks by noting that AQAP remains a “significant threat” to the United States and its allies. In previous press releases, CENTCOM has said that AQAP is “using the unrest in Yemen to provide a haven from which to plan future attacks against our allies as well as the US and its interests.”
AQAP has directed several plots to attack the US, including the failed 2009 airline bombing over Detroit. That plot failed when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was unable to properly detonate his bomb, which he successfully smuggled aboard the airplane.
AQAP is one of al Qaeda’s most prominent branches, and has hosted some of al Qaeda’s top leaders. The US killed Nasir al Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s last general manager, in a drone strike in June 2015. In addition to serving as al Qaeda’s general manager, he was also the emir of AQAP. His death and the death of other senior al Qaeda leaders, such as deputy general manager Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, did not prevent AQAP from overrunning much of southern Yemen in 2015 up until early 2016.
AQAP controls rural areas of central and southern Yemen despite both US drone and conventional strikes as well as a UAE-led ground offensive that has ejected the group from major cities and towns. AQAP is known to operate training camps in Yemen, and claims to do so to this day. In mid-July, AQAP touted its Hamza al Zinjibari Camp, which trains its “special forces.” Zinjibari was an AQAP military field commander who was killed in a US drone strike in February 2016.
The US military targets AQAP with the approval of Yemen’s government in exile. The government was forced to flee the capital of Sana’a after Houthi rebels overran it and several provinces in both north and central Yemen.