The United States conducted a series of airstrikes on al-Qaeda targets in Yemen on Thursday, the Pentagon said, in another sign of the Trump administration’s expanding counterterrorism campaign there.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that the air attacks targeted “militants, equipment and infrastructure” associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in three Yemeni governorates: Abyan, Bayda and Shabwah.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss information that has not officially been made public, said there was a total of 25 strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft, far more attacks in a single night than the United States has conducted in recent history.
While Pentagon officials denied Yemeni reports that the U.S. military conducted a ground raid in conjunction with the strikes, U.S. forces were on the ground in the same period, another possible indication of an accelerated offensive in Yemen. Those forces, however, did not conduct any raids, U.S. officials said.
“We have U.S. Special Operations forces that go in and out of Yemen to assist our partner forces in fighting al-Qaeda,” Davis said. He declined to comment on specific activities overnight.
The flurry of activity, following a Jan. 29 raid by U.S. Special Operations forces, comes as the United States seeks to step up its approach to counteracting militancy in Yemen. The country is mired in a lengthy civil conflict that has pushed it to the brink of famine and enabled AQAP militants to expand their domain.
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U.S. officials see AQAP, which has already tried to attack the United States directly, as one of the most dangerous militant threats they face. For months, the U.S. military has been eager to secure approval for steps that would restore an on-the-ground intelligence and a counterterrorism program that was largely shut down amid mounting instability in 2015.
Already, President Trump has shown himself willing to approve sensitive operations in Yemen, with the Jan. 29 raid that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, Chief Special Warfare Officer William “Ryan” Owens and, according to local reports, scores of civilians.
The military has also been seeking other authorities for operations in Yemen, including the ability to conduct sustained airstrikes in parts of Yemen and to take part in raids with elite forces from the United Arab Emirates that are assigned to Yemen.
The defense official said that the military had been granted temporary authority to conduct intensified air operations against AQAP in some areas of Yemen. The granting of that authority for what is known in government jargon as an “area of active hostility” typically enables the military to launch strikes without a more lengthy approval process managed by the White House. It is similar to the authority the U.S. military was granted for the Libyan city of Sirte, where it conducted a multi-month air campaign against the Islamic State last year.
The official declined to say how long that temporary authority would last. If granted for an extended period, it could permit more-intensive strikes, such as those that occurred Thursday, over a sustained period.
Although the United States has conducted periodic strikes against AQAP in Yemen, they have mostly occurred in small numbers.
Military officials said it was not immediately clear how many people were injured or killed in Thursday’s airstrikes, but local news media reported that “hundreds” of militants were slain.
Ramzi al-Fadhli, head of the government’s special forces media office in Aden, described a multi-pronged air assault, which he said involved not only aircraft but also attacks from U.S. ships off Yemen’s coast. In one instance, a car was struck near an area of Abyan province called Mowjan, killing all five passengers, he said. Senior AQAP figures were thought to be among the dead.
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Fadhli also said that Yemeni officials thought foreign soldiers, believed to be Americans, had conducted operations on the ground in Mowjan, which has been known as an AQAP stronghold. “Footprints from soldiers and police dogs have been seen in the area of Mowjan. . . . We are also looking into the purpose behind the American soldiers’ landing in the area and what their mission was,” he said.
Salem al-Marqashi, a tribal leader from the Mowjan area, said that helicopters brought forces from offshore locations early Thursday to an area called al-Nukhaila. “We believe that the soldiers were American because they came from the battleships, and it is known to the fishermen and locals in the area that the battleships in that area are American,” Marqashi said. “The locals saw them from a distance of about one kilometer [0.6 miles] away.”
He said locals did not detect any gunfire in the area and said the foreign forces left by helicopter “around dawn.”
According to Saleh Abu Awdal, editor in chief of the Yemeni news website al-Yawm al-Thamen, residents of Mowjan reported the foreign troops to be from the UAE because of materials they left behind and said they departed shortly after arriving.
The United States partners closely in Yemen with UAE forces, as it did in the raid in January that was the Trump’s administration’s first major counterterrorism operation and has generated criticism over the death of Owens as well as reported civilian deaths and a series of other mishaps.
The defense official said the airstrikes were not a result of intelligence gleaned from that raid, which targeted an AQAP compound in central Yemen. The Jan. 29 operation was described as an intelligence-gathering raid. He said it yielded “terabytes of data,” SIM cards, cellphones and other materials providing officials the names and telephone numbers of hundreds of contacts inside and outside of Yemen.
“We consider it to be a very valuable take,” the official said. Officials continue to mine that material for information they can use against AQAP.
But other officials remain skeptical about the significance of the material recovered.
Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report. Mujahed reported from Sanaa, Yemen.