The US military has continued its increased targeting of al Qaeda’s network in Yemen, launching more that 20 airstrikes against the terrorist group over the weekend. The US has now launched more than 75 airstrikes in Yemen since the beginning of the year, already nearly double the yearly total since the drone program against al Qaeda in Yemen began in 2009.
According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, the previous record number of airstrikes conducted by the US in Yemen in any one year was 41 in 2009.
The large number of strikes over a short period of time indicates the US has, under the Trump administration, changed its tactics in fighting AQAP in Yemen. The US military previously described AQAP as one of the most dangerous terrorist networks determined to strike US interests, yet it had been overly cautious in targeting the group. Over the previous five years, the US military averaged just two to three strikes against AQAP a month.
“The precision airstrikes targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists, as well as the terrorists’ infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” according to a news summary of an April 3 press conference held by Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.
The strikes, “which were largely unmanned,” according to Davis, took place in Shabwa province, a known hotbed for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“We continue to target AQAP in Yemen, and this is done in the interest of disrupting a terror organization that presents a very significant threat to the United States,” Davis said.
According to the Pentagon, the US military has launched “some 50 airstrikes” between Feb. 28 and the end of last week, and an additional 20 strikes over the weekend.
The uptick in airstrikes in Yemen follows a controversial raid by US special operations forces against AQAP in Al Baydah province in January that was reported to have netted significant intelligence. One US Navy Seal, two senior AQAP leaders, and at least 13 civilians, including the eight year old daughter of slain radical AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki, were among those killed during the raid, which quickly evolved into a heavy firefight that also resulted in the loss of an Osprey aircraft.
Despite years of targeting AQAP, the group retained significant capacity. Early last month, Davis estimated AQAP maintains a strength in the “low thousands,” and that the group “can skillfully exploit the disorder in Yemen to build its strength and reinvigorate its membership and training.”
AQAP still controls rural areas of central and southern Yemen despite both attacks from the US and a United Arab Emirates-led ground offensive, which ejected the group from major cities and towns it held in mid-2016. AQAP claims to still operate training camps in Yemen to this day. In mid-July, AQAP touted its Hamza al Zinjibari Camp, where the group trains its “special forces.” Zinjibari was an AQAP military field commander who was killed in a US drone strike in Feb. 2016.