US drone strike kills 2 AQAP fighters in central Yemen

The US killed two al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in a drone airstrike in central Yemen yesterday as fighting for control of major towns and cities in the south heats up.

The unmanned Predators or the more heavily armed Reapers struck a convoy in the central province of Baydah yesterday afternoon, killing a Yemeni and a Somali fighter, according to AFP. The identities of those killed have not been disclosed, and AQAP has not released a statement confirming or denying the deaths.

Somali fighters from Shabaab are reported to have entered Yemen to support al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, as AQAP attempts to consolidate control in the south and fight the military. On April 11, Yemeni officials claimed that Somalis, Saudis, and Pakistanis were among those killed during fighting in Lawdar in Abyan province. And on April 21, the military claimed that 10 Saudi and three Somali fighters were killed while fighting in Abyan.

Baydah province is known to have an AQAP presence. The terror group seized control of Rada’a in Baydah in January but later withdrew after negotiating a peace agreement with the local government.

The Yemeni government has launched a major offensive designed to clear AQAP from the larger cities and towns in southern Yemen. Hundreds of civilians, AQAP fighters, and Yemeni troops have been killed during fighting over the past week. Yemeni troops have clashed with AQAP fighters outside of Lawdar, and claimed to have ejected the terror group from the city. Yemeni troops are also engaged in fighting with AQAP fighters outside of Jaar, and officials have said they expect to defeat AQAP there within days. Heavy fighting has been reported in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, which has been under AQAP control for one year.

US strikes in Yemen

The US has now carried at least eight drone strikes in Yemen this month; and six of those strikes have taken place in the past week. 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.

The US conducted six airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in March, and at least six more in April.

The CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 37 air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009, including yesterday’s strike in Baydah province.

Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 31 airstrikes in Yemen, with 21 of those strikes taking place so far in 2012. This year, the US appears to be targeting both AQAP leaders and foot soldiers in an effort to support Yemeni military operations against the terror group. AQAP has taken control of vast areas in southern Yemen and has been expanding operations against the government, with raids on military bases in locations previously thought to be outside the terror group’s control.

Three senior AQAP operatives have been killed in the 21 strikes so far this year. The most recent strike that killed a senior AQAP leader took place on May 6, when the US killed Fahd al Quso in a drone attack in Shabwa province. Quso, who has been described as AQAP’s external operations chief, was involved in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 US sailors. The US obtained the information leading to Quso from a Saudi operative who had penetrated AQAP.

On Jan. 31, US drones killed Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani near the city of Lawdar in Abyan province. Fatahani was also involved in the suicide attack on the USS Cole, as well as the bombing that damaged the Limburg oil tanker in 2002. AQAP said that Fatahani had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US also killed Mohammed Saeed al Umda (a.k.a. Ghareeb al Taizi) in an April 22 drone strike on a convoy in the Al Samadah area of Marib province. Prior to the downfall of the Taliban regime in 2001, he had attended the Al Farouq military training camp in Afghanistan. Umda served as a member of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan before returning to Yemen, and was involved in the October 2002 suicide attack on the French oil tanker Limburg. He escaped from a Yemeni jail in 2006.

The pace of the US airstrikes has increased as AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, have taken control of vast areas of southern Yemen. AQAP controls the cities of Zinjibar, Al Koud, Jaar, and Shaqra in Abyan province. The terror group also holds Azzan in Shabwa province.

US intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a direct threat to the homeland. The latest AQAP plot against the West, involving an underwear bomb that is nearly undetectable and was to be detonated on an airliner, was foiled earlier this month. The terror group has planned multiple attacks against targets in the US. A strike in Yemen last year killed Anwar al Awlaki, the radical, US-born cleric who plotted attacks against the US, and Samir Khan, another American who served as a senior AQAP propagandist.

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

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