The United States conducted six strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen over the summer, according to a US Forces Central Command (CENTCOM) press release today. The strikes occurred in the central governorate of Al-Bayda, as well as the eastern governorates of Shabwah and Hadramout.
The strikes occurred on May 25, June 23 and 30, July 22 and 24, and Aug. 14.
The United States has conducted a total of 34 strikes in Yemen in 2018, all of which targeted AQAP – barring one strike against the Islamic State in Jan. 2018. At the current tempo, 2018 will not surpass last year’s record high of 131 strikes. It will, however, likely exceed every other year of the air campaign.
CENTCOM’s transparency with regard to its Yemen counterterrorism operations has improved dramatically since last year. The combatant command regularly provides FDD’s Long War Journal details on the strike locations, dates, and militant groups targeted — information not available since late 2016. This data provides insight into the geographic scope of the American air campaign, as well as the eastern reach of Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch.
In 2017, CENTCOM publicized a small portion of strikes, all of which occurred in the central governorates of Bayda and Marib. The information in 2018 reveals US strikes – and thus continued Al Qaeda presence – further east in governorates like Hadramawt and Shabwa.
CENTCOM highlighted AQAP’s capacity to plot external attacks from Yemen. “AQAP has taken advantage of the conflicts in Yemen, to plot, direct and encourage terror attacks abroad,” said Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a CENTCOM spokesperson. “We will not relent on our pursuit of AQAP terrorists as they remain a significant threat to regional security and stability, and the safety of Americans at home and abroad.”
The press release also cited a recent United Nations Security Council report, which assessed that AQAP uses Yemen as a hub for external operations. According to the report, which was released in July 2018, “Member States assess that Al-Qaida leadership maintains a strong structure in the Arabian Peninsula, especially inside Yemen, where the organization continues to plan and orchestrate terrorist attacks in the wider region and beyond. The leadership of the Al-Qaida core recognizes Yemen as a venue for guerrilla-style attacks and a hub for regional operations.”
“The lack of a strong central Government in Yemen has provided a fertile environment for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to establish itself,” the UN report continued.
Yemen is plagued by a multi-faceted civil war, whose players include the Hadi government, the Houthis, AQAP, Southern Separatists, and a cadre led by former president Salih.
AQAP’s “total strength inside Yemen is currently estimated at between 6,000 and 7,000,” according to the UN report. However, given the group’s reach throughout the country (the UN says it is active in Abyan, Al Bayda, Hadramout, Lawdar, Marib, Shabwah, however it is known to operate in many other provinces), its ties with tribal groups, as well as its masking of its operations behind Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s strength may easily be double that number.