Yemen strikes wane, but AQAP still poses “a significant threat”

The number of US airstrikes that target al Qaeda’s network in Yemen has decreased significantly from 2017 to 2018, but the terror group remains “a significant threat,” a spokesman for US Forces Central Command (CENTCOM) said. CENTCOM made the statement about AQAP’s viability while announcing two previously undisclosed strikes which took place in September.

The US conducted two strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in September, according to CENTCOM. US forces did not conduct any strikes against AQAP in Yemen in October.

The number of strikes targeting AQAP has decreased significantly over the past year. The US has conducted 36 strikes in Yemen in 2018, all but one of which targeted the al Qaeda affiliate in the country. This is roughly a quarter of last year’s record high of 131 strikes.

“Despite a decline in counterterrorism air strikes against AQAP, they continue to pose a significant threat,” said Lt. Col. Earl Brown, CENTCOM spokesperson. “We remain vigilant and will continue to work by, with and through our regional partners to disrupt, deter and destroy AQAP.”

AQAP has remained a viable and lethal branch of al Qaeda’s global network, despite a concerted US air campaign that has killed several top leaders and operatives, and has targeted AQAP’s military capacity. AQAP has taken over large areas of southern and central Yemen twice since 2011. It is not just a local jihadist insurgency, but has played a key role in al Qaeda’s global network. Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s previous emir, also served as al Qaeda’s general manager. Current AQAP leaders are also thought to serve in senior positions within al Qaeda’s general command.

Yemen remains entangled in a complex, multi-sided civil war. The Houthis, which are backed by Iran, are battling the Saudi and UAE-backed Hadi government for control of central and northern Yemen. AQAP often fights alongside the Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthis, but it occasionally clashes with it as well. The Saudi-UAE coalition often avoids targeting AQAP and has cut deals with the group that have allowed it to preserve its strength. Added to this volatile mix is the Southern Separatist Movement, which often battles all three groups.

While CENTCOM did not provide a reason for the reduction in strikes against AQAP, it is possible that the ongoing civil war and the Arab coalition has impacted the air campaign against the terror group. The US is supporting the Arab coalition in its fight against the Houthis, and this may be diverting resources that can be used to target AQAP.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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