The US launched two drone strike in Yemen in the past 24 hours, killing 11 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in areas in southern and central Yemen where the terror group is known to operate. The strikes take place as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is at the core of an al Qaeda plot that has forced the closure of more than 20 diplomatic facilities across the Middle East and Africa. The Yemeni government has also claimed it broke up several plots to attack oil facilities in the country.
In the first strike, the remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers launched several missiles at two vehicles in the Markha area of Shabwa province, The Associated Press reported.
Seven AQAP operatives are said to have killed in the attack. The Yemen Post reported that one of the seven fighters killed was Sarhan al Thamlaqi, who was on a lsit of 25 wanted AQAP operatives.
In a second strike, US drones hit a target in Marib province, The Yemen Post reported. Four AQAP fighters and two civilians were killed in the strike, CNN reported.
AQAP leaders are known to operate in Shabwa; the province was under AQAP control from May 2011 until the summer of 2012, when the Yemeni military launched an offensive to wrest control of Shabwa from the terror group. Marib is also a stronghold of AQAP.
The US has stepped up attacks in Yemen; today’s strikes are the fifth and six in 11 days. The last strike took place yesterday in Marib province. An AQAP operative known as Saleh al-Tays al-Waeli is reported to be among those killed. Al Waeli’s name appeared on a list, published on Aug. 5, of Yemen’s 25 most-wanted terrorists who were plotting to conduct attacks in the capital of Sana’a and in a number of other governorates.
On Aug. 1, US drones killed five AQAP fighters in the eastern province of Hadramout. On July 30, US drones killed three AQAP fighters, including a Saudi operative, in a strike in Shabwa province; a mid-level AQAP commander is reported to have been killed in the strike. The previous strike, on July 27, which is said to have killed six AQAP fighters in the Al Mahfad area in Abyan province, broke a seven-week pause in drone activity in Yemen.
The recent spike in attacks is related to the terror warning by the US that led to the closure of diplomatic facilities in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. US officials said they have intercepted communications between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s leader and al Qaeda’s general manager.
According to the Daily Beast, the intercepted communications between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi “happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations,” and “more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call.” Representatives from groups such as the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Boko Haram are said to have been in on the call.
Today’s strikes also took place the day after the Yemeni government issued rewards of five million Yemeni rials (an estimated $23,000) for information leading to the arrest of 25 AQAP operatives who are “planning to carryout operations in the capital, Sana’a, in addition to a number of Yemeni governorates.”
“The Yemeni government has taken all necessary precautions to secure diplomatic facilities, vital installations and strategic assets,” a statement released by the Yemeni government said.
Topping Yemen’s list are Ibrahim Sulaiman al Rubaish, AQAP’s leading ideologue and theologian and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee; and Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri, the terror group’s senior bomb maker who has designed devices that are said to be undetectable by traditional screening methods.
The Yemeni government claimed today to have disrupted a major plot to take over the city of Mukallah, the provincial capital of Hadramout, and target oil export terminals and facilities.
“The plan involved dozens of al Qaeda members dressed in Yemeni army uniforms storming the facilities,” including the Al Dabbah and Balhaf export facilities, Al Jazeera reported.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 18 drone strikes in Yemen so far this year, but the pace of the strikes has decreased since last year. In 2012, the US launched 41 drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia. The previous year, the US launched 10 drone and air strikes against the al Qaeda affiliate. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.
Although six senior AQAP operatives, including the group’s deputy emir, Said al Shihri, were killed in strikes in Yemen in 2012, the group’s top leadership cadre remains intact. Just two weeks ago, AQAP confirmed that al Shihri, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed; he is thought to have died or to have been seriously wounded following a strike in October 2012.
The US has targeted not only senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, but also low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government. This trend was first identified by The Long War Journal in the spring of 2012 [see LWJ report, US drone strike kills 8 AQAP fighters, from May 10, 2012]. Obama administration officials have claimed, however, that the drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP’s local insurgency against the Yemeni government.