What Happened When The U.S. Dropped Drones On Al-Qaeda In Yemen This Weekend

The U.S. and Yemen launch the biggest offensive against al-Qaeda in four years.

Tribesmen stand on the rubble of a building destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants in the southeastern Yemeni province of Shabwa in February 2013. Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters

The United States and Yemen pounded al-Qaeda targets for three days earlier this week across governorates in southern Yemen, in another controversial escalation of the U.S. drone campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen. The operation, which is the most sustained in more than four years, included drone strikes on vehicles, apparent air raids on a suspected al-Qaeda training camp, and a Yemeni ground offensive.

On Monday, Yemen’s Interior Ministry claimed that the operation had killed at least 55 people, which it labeled “militants.” But that initial assessment was tempered by a separate government press release that noted that Yemen was still “working on confirming the identities of the operatives targeted in the operation.” The Yemeni government also admitted that at least three civilians were killed and another five wounded “when their pickup unexpectedly appeared next to the targeted vehicle.”

The raids appear to have had two main targets: dozens of fighters, including Saudis, who have recently returned from Syria, and a suspected al-Qaeda training camp in Abyan. Although Yemeni officials said they have known about the training camp for some time, Sunday was the first known strike on the area in the remote Mahfad region of Abyan, which is well beyond the day-to-day control of the central government in Sanaa. Sunday’s strikes, which were more sustained and concentrated than those typically associated with drones, killed the three men running the camp: Muhammad Salim Abdu Rabu al-Mushaybi, Fawaz Husayn al-Muhark, and Salih Sa’id al-Muhark. Those have been the only names released so far by the Interior Ministry. U.S. naval ships carried out a similarly large-scale strike on a training camp in December 2009 off Yemen’s southern coast, although that particular raid ended in disaster when it later turned out that the target was a Bedouin encampment and not an al-Qaeda training camp.

The series of raids comes days after CNN aired a video, which was originally posted to YouTube, depicting a large meeting of al-Qaeda fighters, who were greeted by Nasir al-Wihayshi, commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the U.S. considers the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda.

Wihayshi’s appearance in the video is his first known public appearance in more than a year. A reclusive if charismatic figure from Abyan, Wihayshi spent four years as an aide to Osama bin Laden before being separated from the al-Qaeda commander during the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. He later spent time in prison in both Iran and Yemen before escaping in February 2006. In the eight years since that daring prison break, al-Qaeda in Yemen has grown and evolved from a handful of fugitives to the thousands of estimated fighters currently believed to be in the organization.

In early 2011, while protests calling for the end of then-President Ali Abdullah Salih’s regime further fractured Yemen’s already shaky government and military, al-Qaeda took over parts of Abyan and Shabwa, establishing fledgling “emirates” that adhered to al-Qaeda’s narrow interpretation of Islamic law. That initial effort faltered and failed during the summer of 2012, when a joint U.S.–Yemeni air and ground offensive pushed al-Qaeda out of many of the towns and villages they had occupied. Yemeni officials now believe many of those fighters fell back to the training camp in Mahfad, the region targeted in Sunday’s strikes.

Several media outlets have speculated that the raids may have targeted Ibrahim Asiri, who is often referred to as AQAP’s top bomb maker, or Nasir al-Wihayshi himself. But despite reports of a helicopter landing to collect bodies for DNA testing, there has been no confirmation that either was targeted. Both men have been reported killed previously, only to reappear unharmed.

The three days of strikes also raise a number of questions regarding U.S. involvement and whether the strikes’ legal justifications, ranging from the “imminence” of the threat to whether U.S. personnel or installations were being targeted as opposed to Yemeni targets, hold weight. Ryan Goodman, of New York University School of Law, has a good overview of the legal issues at play here.

There have also been reports that, following a mistaken drone strike in December 2013 that hit a wedding convoy, the Department of Defense, which carried out that operation, has been sidelined in favor of the CIA. Previously both the DOD and CIA had run parallel drone programs in Yemen, with each maintaining its own separate “kill list.” As with much of the past three days, it is unclear which U.S. agencies or departments took part in the raids. The only thing that is known with any certainty is that there were several strikes and dozens of people are dead.

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