The US reportedly killed an Ansar al Sharia official yesterday in a drone strike in an area of eastern Yemen that has been overrun by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Ma’moun Abdulhamid Hatem was allegedly among four jihadists killed in the city of Mukallah in the eastern province of Hadramout.
Hatem’s purported death has not been confirmed by the group.
Hatem’s demise was first announced by jihadists on Twitter. “Urgent – the martyrdom of Ma’mun Hatim an #Ansar_al-Sharia senior official along with three others during the latest airstrike in Al Mukalla #Hadramawt,” one jihadist tweeted yesterday.
Yemeni officials later confirmed the drone strike took place just outside of the presidential palace in Mukallah. The remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired several missiles at a vehicle outside of the palace, according to Agence France Presse (AFP). The other three jihadists said to have been killed in the attack were identified as Abu Anwar al Kutheiri, Mohammed Saleh al Gharabi, and Mabkhout Waqash al Sayeri, the Associated Press reported.
Hatem was previously targeted in a strike on March 3, 2014. Three AQAP fighters were killed in that attack, but Hatem survived.
The city of Mukallah was overrun by AQAP’s forces in early April of this year. Ansar al Sharia is AQAP’s political front group.
AQAP has taken advantage of the collapse of the Yemeni government after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels surged throughout much of northern, eastern, and central Yemen, including into the capital of Sana’a and the southeastern port city of Aden. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda takes control of eastern Yemeni city.]
The US has launched seven drone strikes in Yemen since the beginning of 2015. In the strikes launched this year, the US has killed Hatem (assuming reports of his death are accurate) and three other senior AQAP leaders and ideologues: Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, and Nasser bin Ali al Ansi.
The last three strikes have occurred in Hadramout. Hatem, Ansi, and Rubaish were killed in those bombings, indicating that the US has access to solid intelligence on AQAP’s network in the province.
Rubaish, Nadhari and Ansi were all more senior within AQAP’s ranks than Hatem. And Hatem differed from his AQAP colleagues when it came to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. AQAP’s most influential ideologues did not support Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s decision to proclaim himself the caliph. But Hatem initially did.
Hatem was the Islamic State’s most zealous supporter within AQAP. Hatem frequently used his Twitter feed, which has been suspended multiple times, to sing the Islamic State’s praises. Hatem even encouraged Baghdadi to proclaim himself the new caliph before the Islamic State’s caliphate announcement in late June 2014.
But when the Islamic State announced its expansion into several countries, including Yemen, in November 2014, Hatem did not join Baghdadi’s followers. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Islamic State snuff videos help to attract more followers.]
Indeed, Hatem refused to endorse the group of unknown “mujahideen” in Yemen who swore allegiance to Baghdadi on Nov. 10, 2014. In a series of more than 20 tweets published at the time, Hatem admitted that he tried to get AQAP to switch allegiances from al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri to Baghdadi. But Hatem explained that he failed for a number of reasons. And he said that the Islamic State’s growth in Yemen would only exacerbate the many difficulties AQAP faced inside the country. Given that AQAP is hunted by the US while also embroiled in a vicious fight against the Houthis, Hatem argued the Islamic State’s announced expansion was not helpful for the jihadists’ cause.
Hatem explained that he still wants the Islamic State to expand the territory under its control, including to parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But he didn’t want Baghdadi to do so in a way that further divides the jihadists. Hatem said the men loyal to Baghdadi inside Yemen include “students,” but offered few other details.
Hatem played other roles inside Yemen as well. In a video posted on YouTube in October 2014, he rallied his Sunni audience to fight the Houthis. “If we do not suppress them [the Houthis] at the beginning, this will be a problem,” Hatem argued, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
The Islamic State has accused AQAP of being lax in the fight against the Houthis. In reality, the two jihadist organizations have different rules of engagement. AQAP has claimed responsibility for far more attacks on Houthis in the past six months than the Islamic State has. Whereas AQAP attempts to focus its violence on Houthi military and security targets, the Islamic State is more willing to terrorize Houthi civilians. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Why AQAP quickly denied any connection to mosque attacks.]
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