Unmanned US Predator or Reaper strike aircraft killed 15 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters yesterday in an attack in a village outside the terrorist-controlled city of Zinjibar in southern Yemen.
The Predators, or “drones” as they are more commonly called, struck twice near Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan after coordinating with the Yemeni government, a Yemeni military official told The Yemen Post. Yemen’s Interior Ministry has denied the strikes were carried out by US aircraft.
The strikes took place in the village of Al Khamila, about six miles outside of Zinjibar, according to a report in Reuters yesterday that stated the attack was carried out by the Yemeni Air Force.
The target of the strike is unclear, and no senior AQAP leaders or operatives were reported killed. Fifteen “suspected al Qaeda fighters” were killed and 12 more were wounded.
Background on AQAP and Ansar al Sharia
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting under the banner of the Ansar al Sharia, or the Army of Islamic law. Ansar al Sharia constitutes “AQAP’s version of the Islamic State of Iraq,” which is al Qaeda’s political and military front in Iraq, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “Ansar al Sharia is pulling in allied Islamist groups and sympathetic tribes into its orbit, and seeks to implement an Islamic State much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan and al Qaeda attempted in Iraq,” he said.
In an official statement released by Ansar al Sharia in May 2011, the group said it wishes to take control of “all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities” in Yemen.
AQAP is seeking to build an army to back up its Islamic state. Last summer, Qasim al Raymi, the military commander for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Mohammed Said al Umdah Gharib al T’aizzi, a senior AQAP military commander in southern Yemen, both claimed that the terror group had raised a 12,000-fighter-strong army in the southern Yemeni provinces. Yemeni officials recently told Al Hayah that “al Qaeda fighters in Zinjibar (the capital of Abyan) number in the hundreds, and perhaps exceed 2,000 gunmen.”
For the past several months, Yemeni security forces have been battling AQAP and allied Islamist groups for control of the south. AQAP is known to have openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj since the onset of large anti-government protests in March. Government forces have withdrawn from major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. In May, AQAP took over Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. And in June, AQAP seized Azzan, a city in Shabwa province. Now Yemenis describe the southern port city of Aden as ripe for an AQAP takeover.
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 government factions, a rival military commander, the political opposition, various tribes, Shia Houthi rebels, and AQAP all against each other. Over the past several months, the fighting has intensified. President Ali Saleh has left the country for medical treatment after suffering a brain injury as well as burns on 40 percent of his body following an explosion at a mosque in the presidential compound in June.
Background on known US strikes in Yemen
The US is thought to have carried out at least 10 air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009 [see list below]. Other recent airstrikes are thought to have been carried out by the US also, but little evidence has emerged to directly link the attacks to the US. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2011.]
The CIA is seeking to take over control of the strikes against AQAP in Yemen from the US military, which is currently operating the program. The CIA wants to use the unmanned Predator and Reaper strike aircraft, which the US employs for strikes against terrorist group based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Currently, the US military has targeted AQAP in Yemen using cruise missiles and fixed-wing strike aircraft, although Predators are known to have been used in two of the strikes.
Since the beginning of May, the US has carried out four airstrikes in Yemen, counting yesterday’s strike. On July 11, a US strike killed six AQAP fighters in a nighttime attack on a police station occupied by terrorists in the town of Mudiya in Abyan province.
A US airstrike on June 3 targeted several senior AQAP operatives. AQAP later confirmed that Ali Abdullah Naji al Harithi and Ammar Abadah Nasser al Wa’eli were killed in the attack.
The US strikes have been controversial as civilians have been killed in the attacks. 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. Although Yemen had claimed that the AQAP leaders were killed in the various strikes, they all resurfaced later to deny the reports.
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, and 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:
• Aug 1, 2011: US ‘drones’ kill 15 al Qaeda fighters in southern Yemen
• July 14, 2011: US airstrike kills 6 al Qaeda fighters in Yemen: report
• May 25, 2010: Yemeni airstrike kills deputy governor, al Qaeda operatives
• May 5, 2011: Predator strike in Yemen targeted Anwar al Awlaki
• 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