US drone kills 3 AQAP fighters in eastern Yemen

The US killed three suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in an airstrike in a province in eastern Yemen where the terror group has been battling the government for control. The strike is the second by the US in Yemen in the past week.

“The three armed men were traveling in a vehicle along a desert stretch between Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s border [in Hadramout province] when the drone shot two rockets at them. All three are dead,” a local Yemeni official told Reuters.

No senior AQAP leaders or operatives are reported to have been killed in the drone strike. AQAP has not released a statement concerning the strike.

Yemeni officials, including President Hadi, have said in the past that only the US possessed the ability to strike at a moving vehicle inside Yemen.

The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Hadramout province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. AQAP has regrouped in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa to government forces starting in late spring 2012.

In May 2013, the Yemeni government claimed it foiled a plot by AQAP to establish an Islamic emirate in Hadramout’s Ghayl Bawazir area. In July of this year, AQAP distributed leaflets in Seyoun that said the jihadist group is establishing an emirate in Hadramout and will impose sharia, or Islamic law. Heavy fighting between the military and the government has been reported there in the past several months as AQAP seeks to hoist its flag over the province.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched 16 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today’s strike is the first since Aug. 7, when the US struck a compound in the Wadi Abida area of Marib. Three AQAP fighters were killed in that strike, which was the first recorded in Yemen in two months.

The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14. The timing of the strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013, versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The scheme, which led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.

Between July 27, 2013, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, 2013, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt AQAP’s plan and take out its top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir for Baydah province, during that time period.

AQAP and al Qaeda still seek to conduct attacks against the US. In a video released earlier this year that featured Nasir al Wuhayshi, the terrorist leader said America remains a target.

“O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi said.

Wuhayshi made the statement in the open to a gathering of more than 100 people.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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