Al-Qaeda affiliates killed by US drones and Yemeni forces
More than 40 killed by air strikes at remote training camps in southern Yemen
A Yemeni soldier checks a pickup car at a checkpoint in the country’s capital, Sana, as authorities tighten security measures. Photograph: EPA/Yahya Arhab
United States drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants linked to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months, officials from both countries have said.
At least three air strikes were carried out against al-Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement.
Yemen’s interior ministry said that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s. The government’s statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the air strikes on Saturday.
Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed in the attacks. As part of a campaign using armed drones in Yemen, the US has been trying to kill Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s master bomb maker. But US officials said that those men were not the intended targets in these strikes.
The precise role of the US in the air strikes and ground operations was not immediately clear. US officials said the air strikes had been carried out by drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, but an agency spokesman declined to comment. Other officials said American special operations military personnel had supported the Yemeni operations on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance. The Pentagon declined to discuss the operations.
White House press secretary Jay Carney referred all questions about the operations to the Yemeni government, and he spoke only in broad terms about the counterterrorism co-operation between the two countries.
“We have a strong collaborative relationship, as you know, with the Yemeni government and worked together on various initiatives to counter the shared threat we face from AQAP,” he said, referring to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. US officials sought to play down the US role and to allow Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations. They had a troubled relationship with the longtime president who preceded him, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they have voiced confidence in Hadi and increased aid to the country.
The drone attacks were the largest barrage of air strikes carried out in Yemen this year – 11 so far, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes – and one of the largest strikes carried out since US president Barack Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting al-Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan.
In his speech in May, Mr Obama said targeted killing operations were carried out only against militants who posed a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people”. He also said no strike could be authorised without “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” a bar he described as “the highest standard we can set”.
Given that the administration would not even confirm US drones had carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans. The al-Qaeda affiliate has in the past targeted the US embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital.
The raid by Yemen’s counterterrorism unit late on Sunday, which occurred on the main road connecting the southern province of Shabwa with the adjacent province of Marib, culminated nearly 48 hours of intensive air strikes.
“The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place,” Mr Hadi said in the government’s statement. The statement said three air strikes had destroyed an al-Qaeda training camp in a remote mountainous area in Abyan, a southern province, killing two dozen militants, including foreign fighters.
The government said several other air strikes had targeted vehicles and militants in Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda provinces. Mohsen Labhas, a resident of Al Lahab, a village near a highway that connects the cities of Ataq and Bayhan in Shabwa province, said that after hearing gunfire on Sunday night he and other residents jumped in their cars and raced to the scene. They were met by US drones and helicopters.
“We abandoned our car since we thought that the aircraft might target us, but it turned out that it warned us from approaching the area,” he said.
“Nearly half an hour later the aircraft fired a missile at a target on the ground,” Mr Labhas said. A strike on Saturday morning targeted a vehicle in Bayda province, killing 10 militants and wounding one, according to the Yemeni government. It said intelligence had indicated the fighters were planning to attack important installations.
“Regrettably, three civilians were also killed during the attack and five were injured when their pickup truck unexpectedly appeared next to the targeted vehicle,” the statement said.