US strike that killed USS Cole plotter first in Yemen in 3 months

The US airstrike on New Years Day that killed Jamal al- Badawi, a veteran al Qaeda operative who plotted the USS Cole bombing in 2000, was the first counterterrorism operation by the US military that targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since mid-September 2018. Counterterrorism operations against AQAP have significantly tapered off in 2018 after a massive increase in 2017.

In a statement released on Jan. 6, US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that Badawi was killed in the Jan. 1 airstrike “following a deliberate assessment process.”

CENTCOM “conducted 36 total air strikes in Yemen in 2018, targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen,” the press release noted. There were 35 strikes against AQAP and one more against the Islamic State’s branch in Yemen (IS-Y), CENTCOM confirmed in an email inquiry by FDD’s Long War Journal.

There was a three and a half month gap between the last operation and the one that killed Badawi. The last offensive, which targeted AQAP’s network in Al Baydah province, took place on Sept. 18, 2018. “No strikes were conducted in Yemen in October, November, and December,” CENTCOM confirmed.

CENTCOM did not provide an explanation for the nearly four month gap in the targeting of AQAP and to a much lesser extent, IS-Y.

Counterterrorism operations in Yemen spiked in 2017, tripling to 132 from 44 in the previous year, after the Trump administration ramped up operations against AQAP and IS-Y. It is unclear why CENTCOM scaled back its operations against AQAP and IS-Y, particularly during the latter half of 2018. In Nov. 2018, CENTCOM acknowledged that its targeting of AQAP had decreased, yet the group remains one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches.

“Despite a decline in counterterrorism air strikes against AQAP, they continue to pose a significant threat,” Lt. Col. Earl Brown, CENTCOM spokesperson said.

This reduction in counterterrorism operations in Yemen occurs as the Trump administration appears to be seeking to disengage from the battle against terrorist groups the Middle East and Central Asia. Late last year, President Trump announced that US troops would withdraw from Syria after claiming the Islamic State was defeated there. In Afghanistan, Trump is looking to cut a deal with the Taliban and reports indicate that half of US forces will be withdrawn in upcoming months, with more to follow. There are also reports that the administration is seeking to end operations in Somalia.

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 also targeted AQAP’s military capacity. AQAP has taken over large areas of southern and central Yemen twice since 2011. It is not simply 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 frequently 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 has allowed it to preserve its strength. Added to this volatile mix is the Southern Separatist Movement, which regularly battles all three groups.

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

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