Amid confusion over Yemen plot, US drones pound Al Qaeda

Yemen appeared to back away from claims it had foiled a grandiose plot, and some terror experts wondered if the US, which launched three more drone strikes, had been duped by Al Qaeda into closing its embassies. 

Eric Gay/AP/File
A Predator B unmanned aircraft taxis at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2011. Two US drone strikes killed a total of nine suspected al-Qaida militants Thursday, a Yemeni military official said, the sixth and seventh such attacks in less than two weeks.

The US carried out three drone strikes in Yemen Thursday that killed 12 suspected Al Qaeda militants, maintaining its accelerated pace of attacks even as confusion grew over the specific threats that caused the United States and other Western countries to close their diplomatic posts in the country.

Yemeni officials appeared to back away from claims Wednesday that the government had foiled a grandiose plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to take over some of the Gulf of Aden country’s ports and to bomb key oil pipelines.

Some terrorism experts were starting to wonder if the US had been tricked by clever Al Qaeda leaders into closing embassies and consulates around the region, pulling out diplomatic staff from Yemen, and issuing a global travel alert through the end of the month.

It may be too soon to know if the US overreacted to the conversations among Al Qaeda leaders that officials say the US intercepted earlier this month. But what is clear is that something has prompted the US to redouble a campaign of drone strikes in Yemen that had already accelerated in 2012.

The three US drone strikes Thursday were launched a day after two other drone strikes killed four suspected militants. The five missile strikes in two days were the latest in a surge in drone strikes since late July. In all, 34 suspected AQAP militants have died in the strikes, according to Yemeni officials.

The US does not publicly acknowledge the drone strikes, but the US is the only state operating drones in the region.

The latest uptick in strikes commenced about the time of a Washington visit by Yemen’s president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi – during which US officials reportedly told the Yemeni leader that his country was not doing enough to thwart AQAP. The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda is considered by Washington and other Western countries to be the most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate for Western interests.  

The US drone war in Yemen is surpassed only by the one the US has carried out in Pakistan over the last decade targeting Al Qaeda’s central leadership there.

Some terrorism experts speculate that the US has presented Yemen with the same rationale for its drone-strike campaign there as the one it has presented to Pakistan, as in: “We too would prefer not to have to carry out these operations in your country, but they will continue until you confront these militant elements targeting you and us on your own, and you take control of the lawless terrain where they have found refuge.”

In a new report, Anthony Cordesman, national security scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes that Yemen’s instability will continue to pose a national security threat to the US. In that context, he says, the done strikes are likely to continue, even if at a slower pace.

“These US strikes are having an important effect in killing key terrorists and aiding the Yemeni forces dealing with areas where AQAP and extremists have taken power or challenge the government,” Mr. Cordesman says. “They also, however, have produced civilian casualties and resentment, and this has been exploited by AQAP and anti-US elements with some success.”

The growing resentment of the Yemeni public toward the drone strikes – which are believed to have resulted in the unintended deaths of approximately 80 civilians over the last decade, by some estimates – is just one source of tension between the US and Yemeni governments. The Yemeni government revealed its ire with the US over this week’s pullout of diplomats when it issued a statement Tuesday lamenting the action, saying it was not necessary because Yemeni security forces were prepared to handle any threats.

The mixed signals from the Yemeni government over whether or not it actually foiled a major Al Qaeda terrorist plot this week may also stem from conflicting assessments within the government of how best to present itself in the global focus on Yemen, some regional analysts say.

For some, Yemeni leaders may have decided to back away from the claims of a foiled plot by Al Qaeda – to raid military installations and to use the arms and uniforms seized in those attacks to take over ports and oil installations – after deciding that even an unexecuted but advanced plot could have made the government look like its control of the country’s security is on a knife’s edge.

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