US drones carried out the second strike in Yemen in three days, killing eight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters as they were traveling in a car in eastern Yemen today.
The unmanned Predators or Reapers fired several missiles at a car as it traveled in the Hawra district in Hadramout province, according to Reuters. The Yemeni Defense Ministry claimed it carried out the strike, but sources told the news agency that US drones fired the missiles.
US military and intelligence officials would not comment on today’s strike, but in the past have told The Long War Journal that the Yemeni military is not capable of launching precision strikes on moving vehicles, particularly at nighttime. The time of today’s attack was not disclosed.
The exact target of today’s strike has not been disclosed; no senior AQAP leaders have been reported killed in the attack. According to The Yemen Post, the fighters “were with their personal guns and explosives and it was believed they had planned to carry out terrorist attacks.”
US drones have zeroed in on Hadramout province over the past month. Of the five strikes that have been recorded in August, four have taken place in the eastern province. On Aug. 29, two AQAP fighters, including a Saudi “militant,” were reported killed in Hadramout. On Aug. 7, the US carried out two strikes in Yemen. Yemeni officials said that Abdullah Awad al Masri, a wanted bombmaker who is also known as Abou Osama al Maribi, was killed in one of the strikes in Hadramout that also killed two Egyptians, a Tunisian, a Saudi, and a Bahraini. And on Aug. 4, the US conducted another airstrike in Hadramout province.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 30 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen so far this year; one in January, six in March, six more in April, nine in May, two in June, one in July, and at least five this month. 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.
Since December 2009, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are known to have conducted at least 45 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including today’s strikes. [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 over 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.
In May of this year, the Yemeni military 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 that liberated Zinjibar, Jaar, Shaqra, and Azzan.
Since the beginning of May 2011, the US is known to have carried out 40 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 had taken control of vast areas in southern Yemen and had 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 30 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.