The United States has stepped up its campaign against al Qaida targets in Yemen, launching a wave of more than 30 airstrikes in the last two days, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday.
More than 20 airstrikes were launched Thursday morning, targeting al Qaida militants, equipment and infrastructure in Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan provinces. Those were followed by at least 10 more overnight Friday against the extremist group, which is known as al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Pentagon denied reports that U.S. forces had been involved in raids or firefights on the ground.
“I know there have been reports of firefights, raids. . . . There have not been any that U.S. forces have been involved in, not since the one you know about,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said, referring to the Jan. 29 commando raid that resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and as many as 30 civilians.
While we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands.
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis
The strikes against AQAP are part of a plan developed at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration and were not based on information collected during the Jan. 29 raid, he said. The Pentagon did not rule out more strikes in the coming days.
“I don’t want to telegraph future operations but this is part of a plan to go after this very real threat and ensure they are defeated,” Davis said.
A U.S. defense intelligence official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity under the rules of the briefing, estimated that the number of AQAP fighters in Yemen is somewhere in the low thousands. Most of them are Yemeni, allowing them to blend into the population, he said.
“We strongly believe AQAP remains intent on attacking the West and specifically the United States,” he said.
The Jan. 29 raid yielded information that is “potentially actionable,” including “an awful lot of telephone numbers” that will help the military understand the terrorist network in the region, according to the defense official.
The White House has insisted the commando raid was a success, despite the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and as many as 30 civilians, and the loss of a $70 million aircraft. At his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump declared Tuesday that the raid had resulted in “large amounts of vital intelligence.” It was the first counterterrorism operation he had authorized.
Trump has granted U.S. commanders, through Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the temporary authority to order military strikes without going through the White House for approval.
U.S. forces will continue to work with the government of Yemen to defeat AQAP and deny it the ability to operate in Yemen.
The Pentagon considers AQAP to be one of the main terrorist threats to the U.S. The group claimed responsibility for the 2015 shooting rampage that killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris. It was behind the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airplane on Christmas Day 2009 by the so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The group also encourages lone wolf attacks through its English-language propaganda magazine Inspire.
“While we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands,” Davis told reporters Friday. “It is a deadly terrorist organization that has proven itself to be very effective in targeting and killing Americans, and they have intent and aspirations to continue doing so.”
The terrorist group has exploited the chaos caused by two years of civil war between the Iran-allied Houthi group and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is supported by an alliance of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia.
“AQAP has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies,” the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and left millions of people on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.