SANAA, Yemen – The U.S. has sharply escalated its drone war in Yemen, with military officials in the Arab country reporting 34 suspected al-Qaida militants killed in less than two weeks, including three strikes on Thursday alone in which a dozen died.
The action against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, comes amid a global terror alert issued by Washington. One Mideast official says the uptick is due to its leaders leaving themselves more vulnerable by moving from their normal hideouts toward areas where they could carry out attacks.
The U.S. and Britain evacuated diplomatic staff from the capital of Sanaa this week after learning of a threatened attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
Thursday’s first reported drone attack hit a car carrying suspected militants in the district of Wadi Ubaidah, about 110 miles east of Sanaa, and killed six, a security official said.
Badly burned bodies lay beside their vehicle, according to the official. Five of the dead were Yemenis, while the sixth was believed to be of another Arab nationality, he said.
The second drone attack killed three alleged militants in the al-Ayoon area of Hadramawt province in the south, the official said. The third, also in Hadramawt province, killed three more suspected militants in the al-Qutn area, he added.
All the airstrikes targeted cars, the official said.
The drone strikes have become a near-daily routine since they began July 27. So far, they have been concentrated in remote, mountainous areas where al-Qaida’s top five leaders are believed to have taken refuge.
But drones also have been seen and heard buzzing for hours over Sanaa, worrying residents who fear getting caught in the crossfire.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not talk about individual strikes or release information on how many are carried out. The program is run by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, with the military flying its drones out of Djibouti, and the CIA operates out of a base in Saudi Arabia.
Since July 27, drone attacks have killed 34 suspected militants, according to an Associated Press count based on information provided by Yemeni security officials.
The terror network’s Yemeni offshoot bolstered its operations in Yemen more than a decade after key Saudi operatives fled here following a major crackdown in their homeland. The drone strikes and a U.S.-backed offensive that began in June 2012 have driven militants from towns and large swaths of land they had seized a year earlier, during Yemen’s political turmoil amid the Arab Spring.
The sudden drone barrage could further upset a population already angered by bombings that have killed civilians, said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida and America’s War in Arabia.”
“It’s a really rapid increase when there was a long time where there were no drone strikes for weeks,” Johnsen said in an interview with the AP. “This has a lot of people in Yemen on edge.”
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat have told the AP that the embassy closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based offshoot, about plans for a major attack.
Authorities in Yemen said they had discovered an al-Qaida plot to target foreign embassies in Sanaa and international shipping in the Red Sea.
Yemeni authorities said this week that al-Qaida militants have entered Sanaa and other cities to carry out attacks. They issued a list of 25 wanted al-Qaida militants. The Yemeni statement said security forces will pay $23,000 to anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the arrests of any of the wanted men.
The discovery of the al-Qaida plot prompted the Defense Ministry to step up security around the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Officials banned speedboats or fishing vessels from the area.
Details of the plot were reminiscent of the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000 in Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.
One local political analyst suggests the latest plots were floated by the group to show it is still a formidable force.
“Al-Qaida has suffered losses, and it is trying to make an impression,” said analyst Ali al-Sarari, who is close to the Yemeni government. “The mere talk about an upcoming attack gives the group a chance to restore its shattered image … as a group capable of exporting terrorism.”