A U.S. drone strike targeted al-Qaeda in Yemen on Monday, signaling Washington’s determination to keep fighting the militants despite political paralysis brought on by a Shiite power grab.
Yemeni tribal and security officials in the central province of Marib said the missile hit a vehicle carrying three men near the boundary with Shabwa province, an al-Qaeda stronghold. The strike killed two Yemeni fighters and a Saudi fighter, an al-Qaeda member told The Associated Press. A boy was also reported killed.
Despite the renewed drone campaign, Yemeni officials and analysts say an effective U.S.-backed ground strategy against the al-Qaeda affiliate has been undermined by the rapid disintegration of the Yemeni armed forces, which has received millions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
The prospect of a leaderless Yemen has raised concerns about Washington’s ability to continue targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known. The group claimed the recent attack on a French satirical weekly and has mounted several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.
The drone strike was the first since Yemen’s U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned along with his cabinet on Thursday rather than agree to the demands by the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, for more power. The Houthis continue to hold Hadi and his government ministers under house arrest, and what comes next is unclear.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren stressed on Monday that the counter-terrorism operation will continue, including training of Yemeni forces, though “they are curtailed in some cases.” He did not give details. According to other U.S. officials, intelligence gathering has not been curtailed or shifted to other countries.
Although the Houthis chant anti-American slogans, one hopeful sign for Washington is that they are also staunch opponents of al-Qaeda.
Nevertheless, experts said that both ground operations and intelligence gathering will suffer in addition to the loss of a faithful partner in Hadi. Yemen’s president was a vocal proponent for the U.S. war against al-Qaeda, saying at one point that he approved each strike at a time.
“Hadi was an extraordinary important,” said Bill Roggio, the managing editor of Long War Journal, which tracks militant groups’ activities. “He made it easy to cooperate with Yemeni military and intelligence. His loss is a major loss for U.S. side.” Roggio added that the “upheaval will make it more and more difficult to get intelligence.”
The Houthis, who seized the capital in September, say they want their fair share of power, which they feel they have been denied. Shiites make up one-third of Yemen’s population.
Critics say the Houthis want to retain Hadi as a figurehead president and that they want to rule the country from behind the scenes; they also accuse the Houthis of being a proxy of Iran, an allegation the rebels deny.
Over the past several weeks, Houthi rebels overran the presidential palace, military camps and air force bases and occupied security and intelligence offices in the capital, Sanaa.
It’s unclear how the Houthis’ takeover would impact on the drone operation, according to a top Yemeni security official. He said that the operation is led by American experts either inside the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Sanaa or in the Yemeni military base housing U.S. experts in Lahj province, both untouched by Houthis.
He added that Saudi — not Yemeni — intelligence is playing the vital role in recruiting informants and collecting information on the whereabouts and movement of al-Qaeda members.
The Saudi man killed in Monday’s U.S. drone strike was identified by the al-Qaeda member as Awaid al-Rashidi, who he said was in his 30s and had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for seven years, apparently over terrorism charges. The two Yemeni al-Qaeda members killed in the strike were Abdel-Aziz al-Sanaani and Mohammed al-Jahmi from Marib’s tribe of Jahmi, the member said. Both Yemeni officials and the al-Qaeda member spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
A 12-year-old boy was also killed in the drone strike, according to Baraa Shiban, a researcher for Reprieve, an international human rights organization that helps victims of drone strikes.
The drone campaign has had its pitfalls, with dozens of civilians killed or badly wounded in the crossfire, feeding anti-American sentiment among large sectors of Yemenis and prompting disgruntled tribesmen to become easy recruits for al-Qaeda.
Drone strikes are just one leg in an elaborate counter-terrorism operation. Under Hadi’s leadership, Yemeni armed forces carried out major military offensives against al-Qaeda militants, driving hundreds from cities they overran in 2011.
Yemen’s army has been torn between tribal and political loyalties. After the ousting of long autocratic leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, Hadi’s main mission was to restructure the army to purge Saleh’s relatives and loyalists; however, his mission appeared to have collapsed.
Many believe the Houthis’ easy capture of the capital and other institutions came with the help of Saleh’s men in the military.
Led by Osama bin Laden’s top aide Nasser al-Wahishi, al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch has posed the greatest danger to Western interests, especially the United States. After several unsuccessful operations on U.S. soil, the group claimed responsibility for this month’s bloody rampage at the office of a French satirical newspaper that left 12 dead, to avenge cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Last year, at least 23 U.S. drone strikes killed 138 al-Qaeda militants as well as some civilians, according to the Long War Journal. The number of strikes is much smaller than it was in 2012, when the U.S. carried out 41 airstrikes that killed some 190 militants in Yemen. U.S. officials rarely comment on the covert drone program.