With a series of airstrikes and a recent ground raid, the U.S. military has intensified a long-running campaign against al-Qaida in Yemen, which is considered more dangerous than the group’s parent organization.
The U.S. military has carried out about 30 airstrikes over the past two days in south-central Yemen, according to the Pentagon. The Americans have targeted members of the extremist group, formally known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The concentrated strikes come just a month after a rare U.S. ground raid in the same general area. That Jan. 29 operation in Al Bayda Province did not go smoothly. One Navy SEAL was killed, several other troops were injured and a damaged U.S. aircraft had to be destroyed. Twenty-four Yemeni civilians were also killed, a witness told NPR.
The raid generated a debate about the value of the information on the computers and cellphones recovered from the AQAP compound. A Defense Department official said Friday that the latest airstrikes were not based on intelligence gathered in January. But he did add that the previous raid produced “good information” that provided a fuller picture of a group that is made up largely of local Yemeni tribesmen.
Many details of the airstrikes this week remain sketchy, including the exact targets and the number of casualties.
What is clear is that the Pentagon has decided to ramp up its efforts against AQAP, a group that operates in one of the world’s most remote, isolated and dysfunctional countries.
However, many national security officials believe AQAP poses the most serious threat to the U.S. homeland of any terrorist group.
Most al-Qaida groups, including its core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, have been substantially weakened by the U.S. military. But al-Qaida in Yemen is believed to have the ability to make sophisticated bombs that do not contain metal, which would make them difficult to detect if, for example, someone tried to place them on an airliner.
The group has been linked to a number of actual or attempted attacks in the West, including the 2015 shootings in Paris at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The U.S. has carried out selective drone strikes against AQAP for years, but the operations have generally been on a much more limited scale than in the past month.
The Pentagon said Thursday that airstrikes “will degrade the AQAP’s ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting.”
The military also said it was working in coordination with Yemen’s president, Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. However, Hadi’s authority is extremely limited. He fled the country two years ago after Houthi rebels took over the capital Sanaa. Hadi has spent most of his time in Saudi Arabia, though loyal army forces continue to fight on his behalf.
The war appears to be largely a stalemate at present, with no faction demonstrating the strength to win an outright military victory. Saudi Arabia has been waging an air campaign in support of Hadi, but that has not significantly changed the trajectory of the war and the Saudis have been blamed for many civilian casualties.
Yemen, meanwhile, is suffering a humanitarian crisis with an estimated 18 million of the country’s 27 million people in need of some sort of assistance. The country faces chronic water shortages, and people in the worst affected areas can spend hours a day waiting in line for water. The economy, the health care system, the education system have all broken down.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman contributed to this report.