Strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have waned over the past year, but they have not halted altogether. The US military targeted al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen eight times over the past three months, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced yesterday.
CENTCOM noted that two of the strikes took place in Marib and Al Bayda governorates in January, including the New Year’s Day airstrike that killed veteran al Qaeda Jamel al-Badawi, who planned the USS Cole bombing. The operation that killed Badawi ended a three month long pause in strikes against AQAP.
Six additional strikes, all which took place in March, occurred in Al Bayda.
US forces are partnering with the Yemeni government to “support ongoing counterterrorism operations against AQAP and ISIS-Y [Islamic State – Yemen] to disrupt and destroy militants’ attack-plotting efforts, networks, and freedom of maneuver within the region,” CENTCOM spokesman Lt. Col. Earl Brown said.
The number of strikes targeting AQAP have decreased sharply from 131 attacks in 2017 to 36 in 2018. The reason for the reduction has not been disclosed by CENTCOM. Possible reasons for the slow in tempo include diversion in resources to aid the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition in its fight against the Iran-backed Houthis, which control the capital of Sanaa, and increased scrutiny of US operations that result in civilian deaths. In mid-March, the US House and Senate voted to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war, however the Trump administration has vowed to veto the bill.
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 the coalition 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.
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 believed to serve in senior positions within al Qaeda’s general command.
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