The US targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in the first reported drone strikes in Yemen in seven weeks.
In the first stirke, a Yemeni and a Jordanian AQAP operative are said to have been killed after remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired several missiles at their vehicle as they traveled in the Manaseeh area of Baydah province in central Yemen, local intelligence officials and tribesmen told AFP. Three more “militants” are said to have been wounded.
The Yemeni AQAP operative was identified as Abdullah Hussein al Waeli, a “member from Marib province who was wanted after he escaped from prison two years ago,” according to AFP. The identity of the Jordanian was not disclosed.
In a second strike in the eastern province of Hadramout, US drones are said to have killed four AQAP fighters as they were driving motorcycles in the town of Shehr, AFP reported. The identity of those killed have not been disclose; no senior AQAP leaders are reported to have been killed.
Jordanians are known to fight in Yemen as members of AQAP. Two other Jordanian operatives, including a cousin of slain al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi, are reported to have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen this year [see LWJ reports, Jordanian cleric extols jihad at funeral of AQAP fighter, and Zarqawi’s nephew killed in Yemen drone strike].
US drones have targeted AQAP fighters in Manaseeh in the recent past. On Sept. 2, the US accidentally killed 13 civilians while targeting AQAP fighters in the area.
AQAP has increased its presence in Baydah province this year, and the US has pursued the terror group with drone strikes. On May 28, the US targeted Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir in the province of Baydah, and his brother Nabil, who is also a senior leader in the terror group, in a strike in the town of Rada’a.
Kaid took control of AQAP in Baydah after his brother, Tariq, was killed in February by another brother, Hazam, a senior tribal leader in the town who was concerned that Tariq’s affiliation with AQAP would incur the wrath of the Yemeni government. Before he was killed, Tariq had seized control of Baydah, raised al Qaeda’s banner, sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, and warned that “the Islamic Caliphate is coming.”
Kaid and Nabil were tasked with regrouping AQAP’s forces in Baydah after Tariq’s death. The two leaders are also the brothers-in-law of slain AQAP leader and ideologue Anwar al Awlaki.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 40 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, five in August, two in September, four in October, one in November, and two 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 53 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including the two that took place today. [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 49 airstrikes in Yemen. This year, the US has been 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.
Five senior AQAP operatives, including Sheikh Abu Zubeir ‘Adil al’Abab, have been killed in the 40 strikes so far this year. On Aug. 31, Khaled Batis, a wanted AQAP operative who is said to have been the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of the French oil tanker Limburg, was killed in that attack.
On May 6, 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 information leading to Quso was obtained by the US from a Saudi operative who had penetrated AQAP.
The US 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.
And 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.
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.