US military hits AQAP with more than 20 airstrikes

The US military has continued its increased targeting of al Qaeda’s network in Yemen, launching more that 20 airstrikes against the terrorist group over the weekend. The US has now launched more than 75 airstrikes in Yemen since the beginning of the year, already nearly double the yearly total since the drone program against al Qaeda in Yemen began in 2009.

According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, the previous record number of airstrikes conducted by the US in Yemen in any one year was 41 in 2009.

The large number of strikes over a short period of time indicates the US has, under the Trump administration, changed its tactics in fighting AQAP in Yemen. The US military previously described AQAP as one of the most dangerous terrorist networks 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.

“The precision airstrikes targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists, as well as the terrorists’ infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” according to a news summary of an April 3 press conference held by Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.

The strikes, “which were largely unmanned,” according to Davis, took place in Shabwa province, a known hotbed for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“We continue to target AQAP in Yemen, and this is done in the interest of disrupting a terror organization that presents a very significant threat to the United States,” Davis said.

According to the Pentagon, the US military has launched “some 50 airstrikes” between Feb. 28 and the end of last week, and an additional 20 strikes over the weekend.

The uptick in airstrikes in Yemen follows a controversial raid by US special operations forces against AQAP in Al Baydah province in January that was reported to have 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. Early last month, Davis estimated 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 it held in mid-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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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5 Comments

  • Mark Adkins says:

    The Washington Times notes:

    “Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that al Qaeda is growing.”

    And

    “The bottom line here is al Qaeda’s core was never defeated, it was never decimated,” he said. “They suffered dozens of leadership losses for sure, but they had thought that through and they knew that they were going to suffer those losses, and we are still killing guys, to this day, who first joined the jihad in 1979 and 1980.”

    I interpret this as saying that Al Qaida’s membership base has grown, and that its leadership remains viable because of a command replacement structure that is built into the organization.

    Since nobody can say that airstrikes in other major theaters (e.g. Pakistan) have been “overly cautious”, permit me to express a degree of skepticism as to the strategic effectiveness of these strikes, despite some unquestionable tactical successes.

    If the organization is growing, both numerically and geographically, then its non-military support network must also be growing. That means more civilian sympathizers willing to provide the logistical support needed to field both paramilitary forces and terrorists.

    Mr. Roggio writes about the ability of Al Qaeda to skillfully exploit disorder to build its strength and reinvigorate its membership and training.

    I wonder if they can’t skillfully exploit the airstrikes to do the same.

    The term “precision” is often applied to such strikes. But we know that civilian casualties do occur, because the groups are at least partially integrated into population centers, whether at the village level or higher, and also because the intelligence used to determine targets and optimal conditions for strikes is imperfect.

    We know from the Boston Marathon bombings that less than ten pounds of low-grade black-powder explosives, combined with shrapnel, can function as highly destructive, and indiscriminate, anti-personnel devices, wounding dozens. I suggest that military grade high-explosive warheads of the same or larger poundage are no less indiscriminate when used on urban compounds, houses, or cars traveling along roads.

    Without arguing about numbers of civilian casualties, what is unmistakably clear is that the U.S. government has decided, as a matter of official policy, that *some* level of collateral damage is acceptable, else the practice would have stopped long ago.

    I know that in Vietnam, both with the French and with Americans, the Viet Cong would deliberately draw airstrikes and artillery strikes on villages in order to alienate the civilian population from the government and gain recruits and other support for themselves.

    Al Qaeda may not be utilizing a similar strategy, but rest assured they are utilizing the results the same way, with propaganda that increases sympathy, support, and recruits.

    The question is, if these airstrikes are not effective at reducing membership or eliminating leadership, exactly what is the offsetting value worth providing Al Qaeda with a propaganda victory and a recruitment tool?

    • Sean inNYC says:

      It is quite a leap to suppose that not only are US strikes in Yemen against AQAP targets done in urban or populated areas, using indiscriminate (eg, cluster munitions, 500-1,000 lb warheads, etc.) bombing, but that the US military would be ignorant of its own long-established counterinsurgency doctrines. Especially since the article clearly states the operations take place in rural areas using drones (is, sparsely populated, only light smart weapons).

      The most plausible reason for increased support for AQAP is found in the spread of Wahabbism, as well as AQ’s ability to propagandize and recruit worldwide leveraging video sharing and social media technology. That, and that AQAP, ISIS, all Muslims etc., are entirely justified, in fact required, by Islamic law to support the Wahabbists in their efforts.

  • Roc says:

    All these air attacks and the US never loses any aircraft. Yet, the training accidents continue to happen routinely in the rest of the world. An F-16 crashed in Maryland just recently, but you never hear of any losses in the Middle East. Could it be, our losses are not being reported.

  • Devendra Sood says:

    I believe in Genral Stanley McChrystal’s strategy. He believed in killing the terrorists at a rate at which they can not regenrate. And, General McChrystal proved the correctness and the strength of his strategy. He demolished the Terrorists of ALL KINDS in Iraq and got rid of Zarkawi. You need determination, faith in your strategy, spine to buck the temporary back lash and stay the course. McChrystal did and he showed us the way how to get rid of these cockroaches.
    YES, WE CAN KILL’EM ALL.

  • Arjuna says:

    Airstrikes must be sustained. Triple tap, Sextuple Tap! Hit the funerals of the funeral of the funeral of the funeral of the friend of the terrorist. End the chain of transmission.
    Obama pulled out all our SF and OGA in Yemen, now we have to return and re-invent the security and stability wheel at tremendous extra cost, plus loss of time.
    Gee, haven’t I heard that song somewhere else before?

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis