US drone strike kills 20 AQAP fighters in Yemen

The US reportedly killed up to 20 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in a drone strike today in the central Yemeni province of Baydah. The strike took place in an area where the jihadist group has been battling Shiite Houthi rebels who have advanced southwards after taking control of Sana’a, the capital, in late September.

The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers attacked AQAP targets due east of the city of Radaa, the site of protracted fighting between AQAP and Houthi rebels who began advancing on the city on Oct. 15. Local media reports indicated that the drones targeted a number of vehicles in the area, including a truck carrying weapons and a four-car AQAP convoy.

According to tribal sources and eyewitnesses, 20 AQAP fighters were killed in the strike. Some Yemeni news sources identified two of the slain fighters as explosives experts Ayyash al Eid and Ahmad Jarallah a.k.a. Abu Saleh, both of whom may have been trained by AQAP master bombmaker Ibrahim al Asiri or one of his lieutenants. Other reports went so far as to suggest that up to 30 AQAP fighters have been killed by US drone strikes in several locations northeast of Radaa.

Strike coincides with AQAP-Houthi fighting in Baydah

The US drone strike occurred amid fierce clashes in the Radaa area between AQAP and Sunni tribesmen and Shiite Houthi rebels that began around 1:00 a.m. today and lasted till dawn. Local sources claimed that two AQAP-led attacks in Radaa city and the Jabal al Tha’alab region left up to 29 Houthi rebels dead. Arabic press reports indicated that the drone strike took place after AQAP withdrew from the area today at dawn.

Fighting resumed in Radaa this afternoon, most notably in the Dar al Najd, Subeira, and Qaa’ Radaa districts of the city. Clashes erupted following a new series of attacks reportedly launched by AQAP targeting Houthi checkpoints in the area. Five more casualties were reported as a result of the renewed combat, which is currently centered around a mountain range northeast of Radaa.

Today’s strike is the first since Oct. 24. Three AQAP operatives were reported killed in that strike, which targeted the Manasseh area near Radaa in Baydah province. These past two drone strikes have targeted AQAP fighters as they escalate terrorist operations throughout the country in an attempt to counter the Houthi advance.

The US has launched five drone strikes in Yemen since the Houthi rebel forces, which are backed by Iran and are outspoken enemies of AQAP, took control of the the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on Sept. 22. The Houthis have since pushed southward and taken control of the port city of Hodeidah, the central Yemeni city of Dhamar, and the entirety of Ibb province. Significantly, AQAP has attacked the southwestern district of al Adayn in Ibb province and held it twice in defiance of the Houthi advance.

The US has carried out 22 strikes in Yemen so far this year. The US ramped up its air campaign in Yemen in 2009, and has conducted 105 air and cruise missile strikes in the country since the program was expanded. Prior to 2009, the US launched one airstrike, against al Qaeda in Yemen in 2002.

The US continues to target AQAP, which is considered to be one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches, despite the virtual collapse of the Yemeni government. The US has relied on the central government and the Yemeni military and intelligence service to provide political support and targeting information in the campaign against the jihadist group’s network. But the expansion of Houthi control into areas of central and western Yemen, the fracturing of Yemen’s security forces, and AQAP’s positioning of itself as the defender of Yemen’s Sunnis may make operations against the terrorist network more difficult over time.

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