The US military launched at least four airstrikes against al Qaeda’s network in Yemen during the month of July, according to statements released by US Central command (CENTCOM). Eleven members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were killed in the strikes, all which took place in the province of Shabwa.
CENTCOM announced the four strikes in separate statements that were released on July 8 and Aug. 2. The US military has begun to release information about “counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities” since President Obama directed the military and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to increase transparency on operations against jihadist groups outside of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, US government releases data on ‘counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities’.]
According to CENTCOM, the four US strikes took place on July 1 (two AQAP fighters killed), July 4 (two AQAP fighters killed), July 8 (one AQAP fighter killed), and July 16 (six AQAP fighters killed). Two of the four strikes (July 1 and 4) were identified by CENTCOM as taking place in Shabwa province. The other two strikes (July 8 and 16) took place “near central Yemen,” which CENTCOM has previously identified as Shabwa, a province that is in southern and central Yemen and is a known AQAP stronghold. AFP reported that the July 16 strike took place in Shabwa.
No senior or mid-level AQAP leaders or operatives were reported to have been killed in the July counterterrorism operations in Yemen. According to CENTCOM, the US has launched 12 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen this year.
However, The Long War Journal has recorded 22 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in 2016. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that CENTCOM may not have released all of its data. It is also possible that the CIA instead executed some of the airstrikes, or that strikes attributed in the press to the US military were conducted by Saudi Arabia.
The US has ramped up attacks in Yemen this year after reducing the number from its peak of 41 in 2012, when AQAP controlled significant territory in the south. The operations were halved (26 in 2013, 23 each in 2014 and 2015) until AQAP went back on the offensive and took control of large areas in southern Yemen at the end of 2015. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2016.]
AQAP a “significant threat”
Like past military press releases announcing the strikes in Yemen, the US military justified the attacks by noting that AQAP remains a “significant threat” to the United States and its allies.
“AQAP remains a significant threat to the region, the United States and beyond,” CENTCOM noted in today’s press releases. “Al Qaeda’s presence has a destabilizing effect on Yemen; it is using the unrest in Yemen to provide a haven from which to plan future attacks against our allies as well as the US and its interests.”
“The U.S. will not relent in its mission to degrade, disrupt and destroy al Qaeda and its remnants,” the CENTCOM statements continued. “We remain committed to defeating AQAP and denying it safe haven regardless of its location. Strikes conducted by the US in Yemen continue to diminish AQAP’s presence in the region.”
CENTCOM’s statement is at odds with President Barack Obama’s official policy of using drone and conventional airstrikes only as a last resort. In his 2014 speech at West Point, President Barack Obama said that the US would launch airstrikes “only when we face a continuing, imminent threat” from terrorist groups. However, CENTCOM’s statement indicates the airstrikes are part of a broader effort to “degrade, disrupt and destroy al Qaeda.”
AQAP is one of al Qaeda’s most prominent branches, and has hosted some of al Qaeda’s top leaders. The US killed Nasir al Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s last general manager, in a drone strike in June 2015. In addition to serving as al Qaeda’s general manager, he was also the emir of AQAP. His death and the death of other senior al Qaeda leaders, such as deputy general manager Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, did not prevent AQAP from overrunning much of southern Yemen in 2015 up until early 2016.
AQAP controls areas of central and southern Yemen despite both US drone and conventional strikes. AQAP is known to operate training camps in Yemen, and claims to do so to this day. In mid-July, AQAP touted its Hamza al Zinjibari Camp, which trains its “special forces.” Zinjibari was an AQAP military field commander who was killed in a US drone strike in February 2016.
The US military targets AQAP with the approval of Yemen’s government in exile. The government was forced to flee the capital of Sana’a after Houthi rebels overran it and several provinces in north and central Yemen.
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