US drone strike targets AQAP fighters in Shabwa

Local officials in Yemen’s southern Shabwa province reported that an American drone strike killed five al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters today. Today’s strike is the first reported in Yemen since Aug. 17.

The strike, which was launched by remotely piloted Predators or Reapers, targeted a vehicle traveling between the towns of Bihan and Asilan in northern Shabwa province, according to reports. Locals claimed that all passengers in the vehicle were killed and that their bodies had been severely dismembered.

As commonly occurs following reports of a US drone strike in Yemen, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense claimed that the strike was carried out by the Yemeni air force. A military source said that the strike targeted the AQAP leadership as they were planning to carry out an attack against military facilities and personnel. Despite these claims, Yemeni officials, including President Hadi, have stated in the past that the Yemeni air force does not possess the ability to strike moving vehicles.

The military source claimed that the five AQAP members killed in the strike included one Saudi national. Those targeted were identified as Abdallah Ahmad Salem Mubarak, also known as Abu Habbah, Abu Khaled al-Awlaki, Abu Ka’ab, Sa’ud al-Daghari, and the Saudi Seif al-Shihri.

Abu Habbah is a known nom de guerre of an important AQAP leader in southern Yemen. During the course of the government’s southern offensive against AQAP earlier this year, the Yemeni military confiscated a cache of documents including several letters between Abu Habbah and AQAP commander Jalal al Marqishi, also known as Hamza al Zinjibari. In those letters, al Marqishi described Abu Habbah as “the military emir of Mahfad and its environs.”

Mahfad has long served as a stronghold for AQAP fighters, and they are thought to be still active in the area despite a US drone strike on an AQAP training camp in Mahfad in April and a Yemeni offensive to root out AQAP from Yemen’s southern provinces. AQAP had remained entrenched in the Mahfad area following several previous Yemeni military operations that attempted to dislodge the terror group.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched 17 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today’s strike is the first since Aug. 17, when the US struck a vehicle as it traveled along the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in the eastern province of Hadramout. Three AQAP fighters were killed in that strike.

The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14; the other three strikes have taken place since Aug. 7. The springtime strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces. AQAP remains active in the two provinces, as well as in other areas in central and eastern Yemen.

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.

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