The US military has launched more than 30 airstrikes against al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen in three separate provinces over the last several days. Such a large number of strikes is unprecedented in Yemen and indicates a changing US approach to attacking al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, possibly acting on new intelligence gained from a controversial raid by US special operations forces in late January.
It is unknown how many AQAP fighters were killed during the operation. AQAP has not announced the death of any senior leaders.
The Department of Defense announced the airstrikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a statement attributed to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
“More than 30 strikes in Yemen” hit “militants, equipment and infrastructure in the governorates of Abyan, Al Bayda and Shabwah,” according to the statement.
Davis described the Yemeni government as “a valuable counterterrorism partner” and said the blitz was coordinated with and approved by the government and its president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Davis noted that AQAP continues to use “ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct, and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies.”
The attacks “will degrade the AQAP’s ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting,” according to the statement.
The latest press release also described AQAP as an “extremely dangerous al Qaeda affiliate.”
With the more than 30 strikes against AQAP over the past several days and an additional five in January, the US has already come close in the first two-plus months of 2017 to exceeding the average number of yearly strikes since the program began in 2009. Only two other years (38 in 2016 and 41 in 2012) have a higher strike total.
The large number of strikes over a short period of time indicates the US is changing its tactics in fighting AQAP in Yemen. The US military previously described AQAP as one of the most dangerous terrorist networks that is determined to strike US interests, yet it had been overly cautious in targeting the group. Over the previous five years, the US military averaged just two to three strikes against AQAP a month.
Additionally, the military may have obtained more information about AQAP’s network and exploited it with a series of quick hits over a short period of time to shock the group. The US military and the Trump administration claimed that a controversial raid by US special operations forces against AQAP in Al Baydah province in January netted significant intelligence. One US Navy Seal, two senior AQAP leaders, and at least 13 civilians, including the eight year old daughter of slain radical AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki, were among those killed during the raid, which quickly evolved into a heavy firefight that also resulted in the loss of an Osprey aircraft.
Despite years of targeting AQAP, the group retained significant capacity. Davis estimated that AQAP maintains a strength in the “low thousands,” and that the group “can skillfully exploit the disorder in Yemen to build its strength and reinvigorate its membership and training.”
AQAP still controls rural areas of central and southern Yemen despite both attacks from the US and a United Arab Emirates-led ground offensive, which ejected the group from major cities and towns that it held between March 2016 and the summer of 2016. AQAP claims to still operate training camps in Yemen to this day. In mid-July, AQAP touted its Hamza al Zinjibari Camp, where the group trains its “special forces.” Zinjibari was an AQAP military field commander who was killed in a US drone strike in Feb. 2016.