The Yemeni Army dealt al Qaeda and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, a major defeat today by driving the terror group from the key southern cities of Zinjibar and Jaar after weeks of heavy fighting. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula abandoned the two cities after controlling them for more than a year.
Twenty AQAP fighters and four Yemeni soldiers were killed during the final day fighting, military officials told the Yemeni News Agency (Saba). Khanfar palace and Rahowah were also cleared, and the Aden-Abyan road was reopened, officials said.
The military said it was pursuing AQAP fighters retreating to neighboring Shabwa province and killed an untold number during airstrikes on two vehicles and 10 boats. Military engineers “began a wide range operation in the two towns and their surrounding areas searching for mines planted by the terrorists,” the Yemeni News Agency reported.
AQAP confirmed that it abandoned Zinjibar and Jaar, and said it withdrew to prevent civilian casualties.
“The withdrawal of the mujahideen came as a means to spare the bloodshed of Muslims, especially in Waqar Emirate [Jaar], out of fear that forces from the Sana’a regime would repeat the same crime it committed previously in Zinjibar by bombing it during the entirety of last year, which led to the total destruction of the city and the displacement of
its residents,” read a statement that was released by Madad News Agency, a media arm of AQAP, and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. “The mujahideen withdrew from Waqar before the forces from the Sana’a regime reached it ….”
Hundreds of AQAP fighters, Yemeni soldiers, pro-government tribal fighters, and civilians have been killed since the Yemeni military launched its offensive in the beginning of May.
AQAP took control of Zinjibar, Jaar, Shaqra, Azzan, and other smaller towns in the south last spring and summer as the Yemeni government was in crisis. Facing internal pressure for his removal, Former President Saleh was either unwilling or unable to muster the military to prevent AQAP from taking control of much of the south.
The US has supported Yemeni military operations by conducting covert airstrikes against top AQAP leaders as well as local AQAP commanders and fighters. The US has conducted 22 known drone strikes in Yemen this year; several of the strikes targeted lower-level commanders and groups of fighters. Three senior AQAP operatives involved in attacks against US interests were killed this year.
The most recent strike that killed a senior AQAP leader took place on May 6, when the US killed senior AQAP leader 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.
US drones killed Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani near the city of Lawdar in Abyan province on Jan. 31. 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. 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.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.