A general map of Yemen’s governorates. Abyan, where five AQAP fighters died last week, is shown in bright red.
The men were targeted by an unmanned drone while travelling in the southern area of Abyan, said to be a stronghold of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. A missive from the Yemeni interior ministry stated that the five were killed in two air strikes this past Thursday, but did not say whether it was Yemen or the United States that ordered the strikes or whether any intelligence on the men’s movements came from an informer or observations by local armed forces.
Local officials in Abyan, an operation base for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as other militant groups, however claimed it was in fact an American drone which targeted the AQAP five. The Abyan governorate lies about 20 miles from the port of Aden on Yemen’s southern coast.
AQAP is a particular threat to Western interests in the southern Arabian peninsula as far as United States terrorism observers have determined, especially to oil tanker traffic travelling through the Red Sea. Yemen is one of the poorest of the Gulf Coast countries but still makes considerable treasury revenues from its crude oil industry, in co-operation with major international oil firms. The country however has been under the grip of insurgency with both Al-Qaida and local tribal militant groups waging war against Sana’a which saw the bombing of the USS Cole missile destroyer as well as the killing of Yemeni soldiers and abduction of tourists. The USS Cole was a missile destroyer targeted by suicide bombers in 2000, in which 17 U.S. sailors died.
Last year, the Yemeni army, with the help of U.S. military advisers and gun-power, flushed out AQAP militants and sympathisers from a part of the country’s more populated south. The militants have since regrouped and strengthened their numbers. They have also intensified attacks on government buildings and officials.
Another map indicating the split in Yemen between government and rebel forces, as of July 2011.
The Americans regularly use drones to target militants in various countries, including Yemen. Last week, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a similar drone strike in north Waziristan after missiles were fired at his compound. The US policy of using unmanned drone strikes in the ‘war on terror’ have been criticised as invasions of other countries’ sovereignty. Innocent people have perished in earlier drone attacks in Pakistan, and human rights groups have described the use of drones as summary execution of suspects without trial. Supporters point to the heavy involvement of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the use of such aircraft reduces the need for soldiers on the ground, and therefore less deaths of military personnel.
AQAP have yet to respond to the attack, but in previous assassinations of their operatives by drones, Al-Qaeda have threatened retaliation against Westerners and their interests as well as pro-Western governments in the Middle East.
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