American Drone Strikes Increase, Yemen on the Brink

Yemeni forces are taking to the fight to Al Qaeda, backed up by American drones.

A Reaper drone aircraft lands in Kandahar, Afghanistan, January 5, 2011
A Reaper drone aircraft lands in Kandahar, Afghanistan, January 5, 2011 (Defence Images/Flag Officer Owen Cheverton)

The Yemeni military reported on Thursday that it had killed 35 Al Qaeda militants in overnight battles in the restive southern Abyan Governorate of the country. Islamic militants said to have taken control of the province in March of last year and established an emirate there.

The offensive in the south is ongoing days after a suicide bomber killed more than ninety people at a military parade rehearsal in the capital of Sana’a. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.

Earlier this year, four Yemeni soldiers were also killed in a suicide attack at a checkpoint in the south. Whether the militant group that claimed responsibility at the time was affiliated with Al Qaeda is still unclear. It said that the bombing was in retribution for American drone airstrikes.

Yemen’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, who took over from strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in November of last year, has taken the fight to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with renewed vigor.

Daniel R. DePetris wrote at the Atlantic Sentinel last month that Yemen’s armed forces, “once beaten and bruised by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are taking back the land it lost only a few months earlier, launching airstrikes on terrorist bases daily and sending in reinforcements to drive the group away from villages that were converted into Al Qaeda havens.”

The United States have used drone assets and warplanes to augment the Yemeni government’s offensive. American planes have fired more missiles in Yemen this year than at any time since 2002. This involvement comes at a price though. It has fueled the propaganda of radical Islamists and possibly drawn Iran into the fight.

The New York Times reported in March that Iran had apparently increased its political outreach and arms shipments to Yemeni militants.

Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, are using small boats to ship AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and other arms to replace older weapons used by the rebels.

The newspaper cautioned that the scale of Iranian involvement remained unclear. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis, and its allies have a long history of alleging that Tehran has a hand in Middle Eastern uprisings.

Complicating the situation in Yemen is the presence of a separate uprising in the north of the country. The separatist movement there is not only a threat to the central government but also to Sunni regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia because of its Shia nature. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen both in fact have reason to allege Al Qaeda involvement in the north to engage the United States there militarily.