Local officials in Yemen’s southern province of Shabwa reported that an American drone strike killed at least four al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters today. The strike is the second in Yemen this month; the US also targeted AQAP fighters in Shabwa province on Sept. 11.
Today’s air strike, which was launched by remotely piloted Predators or Reapers, targeted an AQAP vehicle traveling along a mountain path in the al-Kardoum area of the Nisab region in eastern Shabwa. The site of the attack is about 570 kilometers southeast of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, bordering lawless Hadramout province.
Other reports in the Arabic press claimed that 5 AQAP fighters had been killed in the strike. Eyewitnesses told the Arabic-language media that the targeted vehicle was completely destroyed. The Yemeni government has not issued a statement regarding today’s operation.
Shabwa has long been a stronghold for AQAP. In the past, the Yemeni military has attempted to dislodge the terrorist group from Yemen’s southern provinces, notably with offensives in 2012 and 2014. Recently, AQAP has sought to consolidate its power in eastern Hadramout province which borders the site of today’s strike in Shabwa’s Nisab region. The central government exerts only limited authority in Hadramout.
Background on US strikes in Yemen
The US has launched 18 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today’s strike is the first since Sept. 11, when the US struck a vehicle traveling between the towns of Bihan and Asilan in northern Shabwa province. Five AQAP fighters were killed in that strike.
The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14; the other four strikes have taken place since Aug. 7. The springtime strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces. AQAP remains active in the two provinces, as well as in other areas in central and eastern Yemen.
The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013, versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The operations have been reduced as the US government faces increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.
The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The scheme, which led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.
Between July 27, 2013, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, 2013, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt AQAP’s plan and take out its top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP’s emir for Baydah province, during that time period.