The US launched an airstrike against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters who have fled the two major strongholds in southern Yemen.
The unmanned Predators or Reapers fired missiles at a compound and a vehicle in the town of Azzan in Shabwa province earlier today, AFP and The Associated Press reported. Nine fighters were killed in the strike.
The exact target of the strike is unclear. No senior AQAP leaders or operatives are reported to have been killed in the strike.
Today’s drone strike took place one day after the Yemeni Army liberated Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan province, and Jaar. The two cities have been under AQAP control for more than a year. AQAP fighters are reportedly regrouping in Azzan in Shabwa province, and the Yemeni military is pursuing the AQAP force.
US strikes in Yemen
Today’s strike is the first recorded in Yemen this month. The last confirmed strike took place on May 28. 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 is known to have carried out 23 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen so far this year; one in January, six in March, six more in April, nine in May, and at least one this month.
Since December 2009, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 38 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including today’s strike in Shabwa province. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2012.]
The pace of the US airstrikes increased as AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, took control of vast areas of southern Yemen starting at the end of May 2011. AQAP seized control of the cities and towns of Zinjibar, Al Koud, Jaar, and Shaqra in Abyan province, and Azzan in Shabwa province.
The Yemeni military has launched an offensive to retake the cities and towns held by AQAP. Hundreds of AQAP fighters, Yemeni soldiers, and civilians have been reported killed during fighting in recent weeks.
Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 33 airstrikes in Yemen. 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 23 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.
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 year. The terror group has planned multiple attacks against targets in the US. A strike in Yemen last year killed both 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.