U.S. Military Deepens Yemen Role With Escalating Strikes Against Al-Qaeda Affiliate

  • More than 30 strikes over two days in southern provinces
  • Authority to carry out actions delegated to Central Command

The U.S. military is deepening its involvement in Yemen, with escalating counterterrorism strikes targeting an al-Qaeda affiliate that’s gained ground in the chaos of the country’s civil war.

U.S. forces carried out more than 30 strikes by airplanes and drones in the past week in southern and central provinces, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The strikes followed the first commando operation Donald Trump approved as president, a Jan. 28 raid against the terrorist group by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 in which a U.S. serviceman was killed.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, has taken advantage of more than two years of fighting between Shiite Houthi rebels and President Abdurabuh Mansour Hadi’s government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, Davis said. The U.S. provides the Saudi-led coalition with logistical and intelligence support, but not troops. It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes in March 2015.

All the while, AQAP has moved deeper into ungoverned provinces after being driven out of the port of Mukalla, which it had seized.

Read more about how Yemen’s turmoil benefits al-Qaeda -- a QuickTake

Although attention in the fight against terrorism by the U.S. and allies has focused on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, “AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands,” Davis told reporters Friday at the Pentagon. “U.S. forces will continue to target AQAP militants and facilities in order to disrupt the terrorist organization’s plots and ultimately protect American lives.”

The al-Qaeda affiliate has orchestrated numerous high-profile terrorist attacks, including the failed “underwear bomber” attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, in which gunmen killed 12 people.

Sean Spicer during a press briefing on Feb. 27.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Navy Seals in the commando raid encountered fierce resistance, according to the Pentagon, and Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed. Trump called the raid a success and recognized Carryn Owens, the commando’s widow, when he addressed Congress Feb. 28. She received the longest standing ovation during the speech.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, though, Owens’ father criticized Trump for ordering the raid and questioned whether the operation was well-planned. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Feb. 27 the administration is “very comfortable” with how the mission was executed, saying it uncovered information that will help prevent future attacks.

The raid also killed civilians -- including an eight-year-old U.S. citizen: the daughter of former al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Yemen’s Stance

Yemen’s government denied U.S. reports that it had ceased allowing American forces access to its territory for raids, but the country’s embassy in Washington issued a statement that “the government of Yemen reiterates its firm position that any counterterrorism operations carried out in Yemen should continue to be in consultation with Yemeni authorities and have precautionary measures to prevent civilian casualties.”

Davis said the airstrikes were carried out in cooperation with Hadi’s government. Targets included militants, equipment infrastructure, heavy weapons systems such as artillery, and fighting positions, he said. U.S. forces go “in and out of Yemen” to support partner forces, he said, without providing details on the number or location of troops.

Intensive Air Raids

Local media reported intensive U.S. air raids, from drones and warplanes, in Abyan, Shabwa and al-Baidha provinces with several al-Qaeda militants being killed. In Shabwa province, resident Ahmed Faiz said in a phone interview that strikes targeted the house of Saad Atef, an al-Qaeda leader in the district of al-Saeed, on Thursday night.

Saturday, a U.S. drone strike in Ahwar, in Abyan province, killed two suspected al-Qaeda members on a motorbike, the news website Al-Monitor reported.

Davis rejected tying the timing of the recent military actions to Trump taking office, saying planning “goes well back into last year,” as commanders worked with partner forces to develop the proposal.

The legal authority for carrying out the January raid and recent strikes “was delegated by the president through the secretary of defense” to U.S. Central Command, he told reporters.

Top Threats

AQAP remains among the top terrorism threats to the U.S., according to another defense official who briefed reporters. The group continues to release propaganda advocating attacks against the U.S. and has captured much weaponry -- mostly from the Yemeni government -- since the war broke out. That includes light antiaircraft weapons and possibly manpads -- portable air-defense systems -- said the defense official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of ongoing operations.

The January raid has provided helpful information, including phone numbers and contact details, on building out the group’s network with potentially actionable intelligence, the official said.

Though there are gaps in the U.S.’s understanding of the group after U.S. officials pulled out of Yemen amid the violence, the official said that AQAP’s members are estimated to be in the “low thousands,” made up predominantly of local Yemenis.

— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis, and Mohammed Hatem

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