The US military carried out cruise missile attacks against two al Qaeda camps in Yemen, killing several terrorist commanders and fighters as well as civilians.
The attacks, which took place on Dec. 17, were carried out in conjunction with the Yemeni military, who targeted al Qaeda bases in the provinces of Sana’a and Abyan. The Yemeni government and the US launched the raids after intelligence indicated that al Qaeda was planning to conduct attacks against Yemeni and US installations in the region.
Abyan is a known al Qaeda haven. The terror group opened a large training camp in Yemen this year, which reportedly housed more than 400 al Qaeda fighters from the Middle East [see LWJ report, “Al Qaeda opens new training camp in Yemen“]. Many of the fighters were Yemenis, Saudis, and Somalis.
The Yemeni government claimed 34 al Qaeda fighters were killed and 17 more were captured in the joint air and ground strikes. Muhammad Salih al Awlaqi, al Qaeda’s leader in Abyan province, and commanders Muhammad al Amburi and Munir al Amburi were also reported killed in the Abyan strikes, according to reports in Quds Press and Al Sahwah.net.
Qasim al Rimi, a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s shura, or executive council, was reportedly the main target of the strike. He is thought to have escaped. Al Rimi is a senior lieutenant to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a senior US military intelligence official told the Long War Journal.
Leaders in Abyan disputed the government’s claims that only al Qaeda fighters were killed, and claimed more than 60 civilians have died in the strikes. Ali Husayn Ashal, a member of Parliament and a leader in the opposition Islah Party, accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government of intentionally targeting civilians.
“The government took pride in saying that some al Qaeda members have been targeted in this monstrous operation, while it knows very well where do these wanted elements move around,” Ashal said, according to Al Sahwah.net. “These elements move around openly and publicly before the government’s eyes. The government can, at any given time, target those who are believed to be outlaws, without inflicting dozens of innocent casualties.”
The Islah Party is closely aligned with the radical cleric Sheik Abdulmajid al Zindani, who has been designated a terrorist financier by the UN’s 1267 committee and labeled a spiritual adviser to bin Laden by the US Treasury. Zindani is also a close ally to the Yemeni government.
Saleh and the weak Yemeni government are also known to collude with al Qaeda, including using the terror group’s foot soldiers to battle the Houthi rebels in the North in exchange for safe haven.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula retaliates
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] has reportedly battled back after the cruise missile strikes and ground operations in Abyan. According to a report in Al Hayat, AQAP “raided government centers” in the Ludat district in Abyan.
Heavy fighting took place between AQAP and government forces, and AQAP apears to have gained the upper hand in much of the province. “Parts of the governorate, which is one of the hard-line groups’ strongholds, fell into the gunmen’s hands,” Al Hayat reported.
Latest covert strike in Yemen
The cruise missile strikes, which were first reported by ABC News, took place within a week after it was disclosed that US Special Forces have deployed to Yemen to work with the country’s army. The US has also recently deployed unmanned Reaper strike aircraft in the region, under the guise of supporting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Reapers and Predators are used extensively in the covert US air war in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The US has conducted at least one other covert strike in Yemen. In November 2002, Abu Ali al Harithi, an al Qaeda operative who was the mastermind of the suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole; Ahmed Hijazi, a US citizen; and four other al Qaeda fighters were killed in a Predator strike in Marib.
Yemen is an al Qaeda stronghold
Yemen has become one of al Qaeda’s most secure bases and a hub for its activities on the Arabian Peninsula and on the Horn of Africa.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based in Yemen and carries out its attacks against the Saudi government from there. The group is also known to operate terror camps in Aden, and in the Alehimp and Sanhan regions in Sana’a. It has conducted attacks on oil facilities, tourists, Yemeni security forces, and the US embassy in Sana’a.
The terror group has also been instrumental in supporting al Qaeda’s operations in Somalia, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal. Yemen serves as a command and control center, a logistics hub, a transit point from Asia and the Peninsula, and a source of weapons and munitions for the al Qaeda-backed Shabaab and Hizbul Islam.
“Yemen is Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world,” one official said. “You have military and government collusion with al Qaeda, peace agreements, budding terror camps, and the export of jihad to neighboring countries.”
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.