Eleven terrorists, including four local commanders, are reported to have been killed in a US drone airstrike in a southern Yemeni province where al Qaeda’s affiliate controls significant ground.
Abdel-Monem al-Fathani, an al Qaeda operative involved in the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden that killed 17 US sailor, is said to have been killed in the strike, according to The Associated Press. No civilians were killed or wounded in the strike.
The US has stepped up its targeting of AQAP operatives perceived to be a direct threat to the US homeland after the terror group attempted several attacks, including the failed Christmas Day airline bombing over Detroit in 2009.
AQAP has seized large areas of southern Yemen. The terror group took control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, in May 2011, and has battled government forces to a standstill. Three Yemeni Army brigades – one infantry, one mechanized, and one armored – are involved in the fighting in Zinjibar, but have been unable to dislodge AQAP from the city.
Several weeks ago, AQAP forces under the command of Anwar al Awlaki’s brother-in-law took control of the city of Rada’a in Baydah province. Two weeks later, the terror group quit Rada’a after negotiations that resulted in the imposition of sharia law and the release of 15 AQAP prisoners from Yemeni jails.
Background on known US strikes in Yemen
The strike near Lawdar is the first reported attack by the US since Dec. 22, 2011, when US drones are said to have targeted Abdul Rahman al Wuhayshi, the brother of Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Abdul Rahman was targeted in Dofas near Zinjibar. He is rumored to have been killed but his death was never confirmed. AQAP did not announce his death.
The previous strike, on Oct. 14, 2011 in Azzan in Shabwa province, killed Abdul Rahman al Awlaki, the son of AQAP ideologue Anwar al Awalki, who had been killed in a drone strike two weeks earlier. The Oct. 14 strike targeted an Egyptian named Ibrahim al Bana who served as AQAP’s media emir. Al Bana was not killed in the strike.
Just hours before he was killed, Abdul Rahman al Awlaki had said he wanted “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it,” according to a Yemeni journalist who supports AQAP. [See LWJ report, Anwar al Awlaki’s son hoped ‘to attain martyrdom as my father attained it.’]
Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a US Predator drone airstrike on Sept. 30, 2011 in Yemen’s Al Jawf province, where al Qaeda is known to operate training camps. In addition to serving as a recruiter and ideologue for AQAP, Anwar is known to have played a role in directing terror attacks against the US. [See LWJ report, Awlaki’s emails to terror plotter show operational role, for more information.]
The US is thought to have carried out at least 17 air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009. Other recent airstrikes are believed 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 has taken control of the strikes against AQAP in Yemen from the US military, which had been operating the program. The CIA wants to use the unmanned Predator and Reaper strike aircraft, which the US employs for strikes against terrorist groups based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Previously, 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 2011, the US is known to have carried out 11 airstrikes in Yemen, counting today’s strike.
One strike, 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 Nasir 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. Awlaki’s death in October 2011 came after several targeting attempts and false claims of his demise [for more information, see LWJ report, Yemen claims AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki ‘killed’ in airstrike].
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.”
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.