An intensive bombing campaign carried out jointly by US drones and Yemeni government forces has left a reported 68 people dead in a three-day-long operation against al-Qa’ida suspects in the south of the country.
The “massive and unprecedented” operation – as one Yemeni official was quoted as describing it – marks a significant escalation in Yemen’s fight against the extremist group. As of today, officials said 65 militants were among the dead, as well as three civilians.
The US has targeted al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen, claiming it is the most dangerous al-Qa’ida affiliate in the world. A more likely explanation is that a drone campaign there is easy to conduct because the Yemeni government supports the attacks.
Al-Qa’ida affiliates and jihadist movements exactly similar to al-Qa’ida, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), are much stronger in Iraq and Syria than they are in Yemen.
The drone strikes at the weekend were directed at what was called an al-Qa’ida base in the far south of the country, built in recent months and said to contain a training ground and storehouses for weapons, food and vehicles.
The US has stepped up its drone offensive against AQAP in Yemen in the past two years after the group had captured and later lost several southern cities in 2011. In a show of defiance, AQAP recently posted a video showing its leader, Nasser al-Wahishi, meeting openly with dozens of militants in Abyan province in the south.
Columns of smoke could be seen rising from vehicles hit by drones at the weekend, according to local tribal leaders. The attacked base is in a remote mountain valley called Wadi al-Khayala in the rugged al-Mahfad region at the border between Abyan and the neighbouring provinces of Shabwa and al-Bayda. The Yemeni government said the drone strikes the day before had killed at least 55 militants – though others gave higher figures – including three prominent al-Qa’ida-linked figures.
A drone strike on Sunday night killed three militants, one of whom may have been a senior commander, when a missile blasted their off-road vehicle in the southern Shabwa province, an official said. Witnesses confirmed the vehicle was destroyed and said they saw the charred remains of three individuals.
Shortly after the attack, commandos in an unmarked helicopter arrived to retrieve the bodies, they said. One witness told a reporter from Agence France-Presse that “the operation seems to indicate that one of the dead could be an important leader of al-Qa’ida”.
On Saturday, a drone strike in the central province of al-Bayda killed 10 al-Qa’ida suspects and three civilians, the official Saba news agency said.
Yemen is an easy place for the US to be seen to be ramping up “the war on terror”, though local observers doubt the long-term effectiveness of the drone strikes.
The Yemeni branch of al-Qa’ida was held responsible for two abortive but well-publicised attempts to bring down planes with explosives hidden in a bomber’s underwear and, in another case, concealed in toner cartridges.
AQAP finds it easy to operate in Yemen, which is larger than California, has a population of 25 million and has well-developed smuggling networks for weapons, drugs and people. The political system is dominated by tribes which share out power.
The drones are often successful in hitting vehicles deep in the mountains but there is uncertainty about the importance of individuals killed and, on occasion, these turn out to be innocent civilians.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.