AQAP kills 17 Yemeni troops in southern Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters overran a military checkpoint in southern Yemen, killing 17 soldiers during an intense battle that also resulted in the deaths of 13 AQAP fighters.

AQAP launched the attack against a checkpoint in the town of Al Milah in Lahj province earlier today. After overrunning the checkpoint and killing 17 soldiers, the AQAP fighters seized two tanks and other weapons systems, according to Reuters. The fighting was so intense that residents of Al Milah said the Yemeni Army “had begun distributing machineguns among them so they could help beat back the militants,” the news agency reported.

Yemeni warplanes killed three AQAP fighters while attacking one of the tanks; it is unclear if the tank was destroyed. AQAP fighters fell back to the city of Ja’ar in neighboring Abyan province. Ja’ar is one of several cities under AQAP control.

Ansar al Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, AQAP’s political front in Yemen, claimed credit for the attack in text message, according to Reuters.

“The holy warriors of Ansar al-Sharia this morning carried out the raid of dignity on the al-Hurur military checkpoint in Abyan, resulting in the deaths of around 30 [soldiers],” the AQAP statement claimed.

Over the past month, AQAP, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has been flexing its muscles in the south. On March 4, a large AQAP force attacked a Yemeni Army base in Al Koud in Abyan that housed a mechanized battalion. The AQAP fighters overran the base and decimated the battalion, killing 185 soldiers, wounding 150, and capturing at least 55 more. AQAP also seized heavy weapons, including tanks, during the assault.

Background on AQAP and Ansar al Sharia

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting under the banner of the Ansar al Sharia. 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 last year.

“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,” the official 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. In 2010, 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.”

The terror group continues to use al Qaeda’s tactic of suicide bombings. In August 2011, Ansar al Sharia released a videotape of a suicide bomber attacking a Yemeni armored column as it traveled from Aden to Zinjibar.

AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil in Yemen to seize control of vast areas of the Yemeni south. Since the onset of large anti-government protests in March 2011, AQAP has openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj provinces. Government forces have withdrawn from several major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. Zinjibar, Al Koud, Ja’ar, and Shaqra in Abyan province, and Azzan in Shabwah province are currently under AQAP control. AQAP seized control of Rada’a in Baydah province in January but later withdrew after negotiating a peace agreement with the local government. Yemenis have described the southern port city of Aden as ripe for an AQAP takeover.

The US in turn has taken advantage of the security vacuum in Yemen to step up attacks against AQAP’s top leaders and its network. The US killed two American AQAP propagandists, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a Predator airstrike in September 2011, and targeted AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi and media emir Ibrahim al Bana. Wuhayshi and al Bana are believed to have survived the strikes.

The drone program in Yemen was put on hold in October 2011 after Anwar al Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman, was killed in an airstrike that targeted al Bana. Abdul Rahman was a 16-year-old American citizen who had said he hoped “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it” just hours before he was killed, according to a Yemeni journalist.

The drone program was restarted in January, and has intensified this month. There have been six strikes in March, and seven strikes total this year. The US conducted 10 drone, air, and cruise missile strikes in all of 2011, and has carried out 27 strikes total since 2002.

The pace of the US airstrikes has increased as AQAP has taken control of vast areas of southern Yemen. US intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a direct threat to the homeland. The terror group has plotted multiple attacks against targets in the US, including an attempt to blow up an airline over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.

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



  • Neo says:

    They need to find a way to deal al-Qaeda a significant setback in Yemen, before things gt completely out of hand. The current drone attacks are not effective enough. They can pick off a few key targets, but they have marginal influence on the situation on the ground. Doing more has its risks. Any sort of coastal raid or other boots on the ground operations would probably stir up a lot of stink. Perhaps too much stink. Al Qaeda is at a point though where they are quickly gaining ground in southern Yemen. Dithering over what to do, at such a critical juncture, may be a fatal mistake. Exercising caution and attempting to keep a low profile are in general a good policy in the Middle East. They cannot be applied exclusively though, especially when the enemy is quickly gaining ground.
    My fear is that the Yemeni government is very unstable and a good proportion of the population would be easily tempted to cross over to the other side. How much would it take for al Qaeda to push Yemen to the tipping point? Some solid gains in the south, than direct attacks against government figures in the north, might convince the various tribes to turn against the government. Once it starts, it could be very quick. Once tribes start switching allegiances it’s too late. Under such circumstances, I am afraid the U.S. would find itself too much on the outside to influence events.

  • J House says:

    Trust me, things in Yemen are already completely out of hand. This covert war has been completely off the US media’s radar and for all intents and purposes, the U.S. owns the situation.
    The Obama admin was given carte blanche by the former head of state to use whatever military means possible to suppress the insurgency, and has failed (proof lies in the wikileaks cable-Brennan visit). Now, they have replaced the govt with another ineffective head of state. Another Afghanistan in the making…

  • mike merlo says:

    Now that AQAP has tanks I wonder if we’ll get treated to al-Qaeda’s version of Kelly’s Heroes?

  • Neo says:

    J House
    I was never aware that the former leader of Yemen had given “carte blanche” to use whatever military means necessary. Is this somewhere in the public record or generally understood to be the case. Forgive me, but I cannot just assume that to be true. I also might add that that the former leader of Yemen wasn’t exactly popular.
    I am also aware that al Qaeda has long standing connections within Yemen and has had a presence both in the cities and remote enclaves going back well into the 90’s. The Marib comes to mind as an old hotspot. It was also my understanding that the problem has slowly grown to be fairly extensive over in the last few years, especially in the south. Lately, though al Qaeda seems to be breaking out and has an increased capability to push the conflict to a new level.

  • The Knight says:

    You all tell me one thing….How much you spent war on terror,how many soldiers you lost…how many soldiers became cripple permanently.
    You started a war with 40 advanced nations in Afganistan just for 50-200 Al-Qaeda personals.
    You lost,they won.They are still in Afganistan may be 500 -1000 now,They are in Yemen,They are in Somalia,They are in Libya,Syria,Egypt,Russia,Pakistan,France,Aljarea everywhere in the world even though you seized their findings,you seized their food,you seized their weapons,you seized their families but they fought and won……
    Admit it admit it,you lost with all latest technology and AK47 won

  • Will Fenwick says:

    I think the United States needs to start using its drone program to pick off and destroy AQAP heavy weaponry and anti-air assets. There were some indications of this after AQAP mauled a Yemeni armored battalion in Al-Koud but it doesnt seem like any follow up strikes have been made on AQAP armoured assets.

  • J House says:

    Please read this cable.
    Here is the first sentence in the first paragraph-
    “(S/NF) SUMMARY. In a September 6 meeting with Deputy
    National Security Advisor John Brennan, President Saleh
    pledged unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for
    U.S. counterterrorism operations, suggesting that in the
    process, the USG assumed responsibility for the success – or
    failure – of efforts to neutralize AQAP in Yemen”.
    The Obama administration owns it this secret little war, and they are getting a pass on it.

  • J House says:

    I would like you to consider the words of President Saleh at the time that August 2009 cable was written-‘ give ‘unfettered access’ for ‘ CT operations’.
    I would call that giving the US carte blanche to use whatever military means possible to decimate AQAP (TLAMs, GBU-12’s, SLAMs, etc.) and him laying it on the White House should things go south. Well, they certainly have.
    So,it is 2012 and in with the new el president’e-the U.S. has complete deniability as it continues an around the clock precision bombing campaign in Yemen on targets of its choosing, including American citizens it has trouble detaining the old fashioned way.

  • J House says:

    I refer you to paragraph 3 of that cable-
    3. (S/NF) While Saleh offered assurances that the ROYG is “determined to continue the war against al-Qaeda because they’re targeting U.S. and Yemeni interests,” he continued to
    link increased U.S. access to AQAP targets with full responsibility for achieving CT goals. Highlighting the potential for a future AQAP attack on the U.S. Embassy or other Western targets, Saleh said, “I have given you an open
    door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.”
    Since that cable, there have been at least 2 (failed) attacks on the US homeland by AQAP.
    What was Saleh telling the U.S.? Basically, ‘look, you have carte blanche in Yemen to do whatever is necessary to stop this…don’t blame Yemen if an attack on the U.S. occurs on your watch or Yemen comes apart as a result of your failure’.


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