US drones struck for the third time in Yemen in five days, killing two al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in an attack in eastern Yemen today.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired missiles at a group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters as they were traveling on motorcycles in the town of Shehr in Hadramout province, according to Reuters. Two AQAP fighters are thought to have been killed; their identities were not disclosed, however.
Today’s strike is the second in Shehr in five days. On Dec. 24, US drones killed five AQAP fighters as they also were traveling on motorcycles in the town. A Yemeni jihadist later identified two of the five fighters killed as Abdullah Bawazir and Nabil al Kaldi. Both men had escaped from a prison in Mukallah in Hadramout in June 2011.
Also on Dec. 24, US drones killed a Jordanian and a Yemeni AQAP fighter in a strike in Rada’a in Baydah province. The Yemeni was identified as Abdullah Hussein al Waeli; he also escaped from a prison two years ago.
Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden’s family, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years.
The US has stepped up drone strikes against AQAP in Hadramout this year. Prior to May, there were zero US drone strikes in the province. Since mid-May, the US launched seven attacks in Hadramout. Seven of the 41 drone strikes in Yemen this year, or 17%, have taken place in the province.
The Yemeni military claimed that Said al Shihri, AQAP’s deputy emir and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was killed in a drone strike in Hadramout on Sept. 5. But al Shihri later denied the reports of his death.
US strikes in Yemen
The US is known to have carried out 41 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 three so far 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 54 air and missile strikes inside Yemen, including the strike 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 50 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.