Last week, CNN reported that an al-Qaeda conference took place in Yemen, headed by the number-two man in the global structure, and that the US appeared to have missed it. If so, we may be making up for lost time. A series of drone attacks in Yemen has killed dozens of terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous of the constituent networks in the AQ umbrella:
An operation targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is under way in Abyan and Shabwa, Yemen, a high-level Yemeni government official who is being briefed on the strikes told CNN on Monday.
The official said that the scale of the strikes against AQAP is “massive and unprecedented” and that at least 30 militants have been killed. The operation involved Yemeni commandos who are now “going after high-level AQAP targets,” the official said.
A day earlier, suspected drone strikes targeted al Qaeda fighters in Yemen for the second time in two days, killing “at least a dozen,” the government official said.
CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoom reports that the Yemenis are a little skeptical of these operations, and that the embarrassment of missing the convention last week may be driving the claims now:
But other Yemeni officials, who asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the media, said there was growing frustration within the government about the lack of clarity and expressed concern that some of the information being reported by the military may be propaganda.
“I’m worried this is an attempt to convince Yemenis that the U.S. and Yemen have turned a corner and are in the process of destroying AQAP,” one of those other officials said. “At this hour, the numbers of militants being reported as being killed keeps changing, and we still aren’t sure if any civilians have been killed or wounded in these strikes.”
“Yemenis are smart enough to doubt initial reports of this type,” he added. “If this does turn out to be exaggeration, it will make the people here trust their government even less than they do and fuel growing anger over the drone program.”
It’s also possible, as I noted last week, that the US (and Yemen) had in mind a longer operation from the beginning. They may have wanted to see where all of these operatives went after the meeting in order to identify harder-to-find cells that would later metastasize on their own if left undisturbed. In that case, it makes sense that the operation would take place now — especially after AQAP began bragging about the meeting on social networks. Or it could very well be that the drone strikes are just a semi-impotent reaction to the bragging.
It may be a while before we can tell which was which. The meeting gave US and Yemen a chance to take out AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who also serves as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s #2 in the global network. If the drone strikes leave him undisturbed after this very public demonstration, it’s not going to be seen as a success no matter what strategy prompted it.