A recent US airstrike in southern Yemen has killed several al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders and operatives, according to reports from the region.
“American jets killed Abu Ali al Harithi, a mid-level Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen,” on June 3, according to The New York Times. Four civilians were also reported to have been killed in the strike.
Harithi was killed along with seven other AQAP leaders and operatives, according to Almotamar.net, a website run by Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress. Among those killed were Abada al Waeli, “one of the most dangerous leaders of al Qaeda organization”; Abu Ayman al Masri, a “media official in the organization”; Ali Saleh Farhan the “amir of the organization in Marib province”; and Mabkhout Ali Jaber al Shuwani, an operative from Marib. But the Almotamar.net claimed the AQAP operatives were killed during fighting with Yemeni troops in Zinjibar.
Little is known about Harithi. Yemen’s state-run television said that he is “one of the most dangerous al Qaeda commanders in Shabwa province,” according to CNN. He shares the same name as an al Qaeda operative who was a mastermind of the October 2000 USS Cole bombing and who was killed by the US on Nov. 3, 2002. That attack was the first recorded airstrike by an unmanned Predator during the war. Harithi was killed along with Ahmed Hijazi, an American citizen.
Yemeni security forces are known to be battling AQAP and allied Islamist groups in the south. Since the onset of large anti-government protests in March 2011, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is known to have openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj. Government forces have been withdrawn from major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. Most recently, AQAP has taken control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, and Azzam, a city in Shabwa province.
The US is said to be taking advantage of the security vacuum in Yemen to step up attacks against AQAP’s top leaders and its network. Yemen has become enmeshed in a civil war that pits factions from the government, a rival military commander, the political opposition, various tribes, Shia Houthi rebels, and AQAP all against each other. The fighting has intensified over the past several weeks. President Ali Saleh has left the country to get medical attention after suffering a brain injury and burns on 40 percent of his body after an explosion at a mosque in the presidential compound last week.
The US is thought to have carried out at least seven air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009 [see list below]. The most recent US strike, on May 5, targeted Anwar al Awlaki, a top AQAP recruiter and ideologue, who is an American citizen. Two mid-level AQAP operatives were said to have been killed in the attack.
One strike, a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Dec. 17, 2009, hit what was thought to be a training camp run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the town of Ma’jalah in the province Abyan. The attack reportedly killed 14 al Qaeda fighters, along with 41 civilians.
Since December 2009, some of the top leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been targeted in airstrikes, including Abu Basir al Wuhayshi, the group’s leader; Said Ali al Shihri, the second in command; Abu Hurayrah Qasim al Raymi, the military commander; Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, the top ideologue; and Anwar al Awlaki.
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. AQAP maintains safe havens in various parts of the country and is also known to operate terror camps in Aden, Marib, Abyan, and in the Alehimp and Sanhan regions in Sana’a. The terror group has conducted attacks on oil facilities, tourists, the US embassy in Sana’a, and Yemeni security forces.
AQAP’s base in 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 in Somalia.
AQAP has also used its Yemeni base as a hub for attacks against the West. The 2009 Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day airline plot, as well as an airline parcel bomb plot in 2010, have all been traced back to Yemen.
“Yemen is Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal in 2009. “You have military and government collusion with al Qaeda, peace agreements, budding terror camps, and the export of jihad to neighboring countries.”
Airstrikes in Yemen targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since December 2009:
• May 5, 2011: Predator strike in Yemen targeted Anwar al Awlaki
• May 25, 2010: Yemeni airstrike kills deputy governor, al Qaeda operatives
• Mar. 14, 2010: Yemeni airstrike hits al Qaeda camp
• Jan. 20, 2010: Airstrikes target home of Yemeni al Qaeda leader
• Jan. 15, 2010: Al Qaeda’s military commander in Yemen reported killed
• Dec. 24, 2009: Yemeni airstrike targets top al Qaeda leaders
• Dec. 17, 2009: US launches cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen
A look at 10 of the most dangerous Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders:
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.