The U.S. military conducted additional strikes against suspected al-Qaeda positions in Yemen on Friday, Pentagon officials said, extending the first new counterterrorism offensive of the Trump administration.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, said the strikes had taken place in areas known as strongholds for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has tried to strike the United States in the past.
“U.S. forces will continue to target AQAP militants and facilities in order to disrupt the terrorist organization’s plots and, ultimately, to protect American lives,” Davis told reporters at the Pentagon.
The series of at least five airstrikes, which officials said were conducted by a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, marked a second night of air assaults in Yemen, a further sign of the expanding military campaign underway against an organization whose resilience and ambitions to attack the West have alarmed military and intelligence officials.
The group has grown stronger amid Yemen’s ongoing civil conflict, which involves Houthi rebels and a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said that air attacks overnight on Friday struck Shabwa province’s al-Saeed area. They were believed to have targeted the home of Saad Atef, a senior AQAP militant in that area.
It was not clear whether Atef was killed in the assault, the officials and tribal leaders said, but they cited a death toll of at least 12 AQAP operatives.
“Some homes were damaged in the attack,” said Mohammed Alfatemi, a tribal leader in Shabwa. “The house of Atef Saad, an AQAP leader, was partially damaged due to a missile that exploded next to his home. We were told that he was not in his house at that time.”
Some local tribal figures also said that ground forces, possibly American, engaged in a firefight in the area.
Davis denied reports of any skirmishes involving Americans on Friday, but he declined to say whether U.S. military personnel had been on the ground in another capacity. Forces from the United Arab Emirates have also been taking part in ground operations against AQAP.
Forces from both countries were involved in a controversial Jan. 29 raid in central Yemen, in which one Navy SEAL and as many as 30 civilians were killed. The Defense Department is investigating those civilian casualty claims.
The Trump administration has sought to deflect criticism of its first major counterterrorism operation, which was plagued by a series of mishaps, saying that the raid yielded significant intelligence material that would help the U.S. military go after AQAP.
On Friday, defense officials made the case for the value of the “large volumes” of material recovered by the U.S. Special Operations team in the January raid.
Other officials have voiced skepticism about how much the material recovered in the raid, which targeted an al-Qaeda compound in central Yemen, would really improve U.S. insight into AQAP’s activities.
“It’s helping us understand the network and further develop it out,” a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, told reporters.
The official said the intelligence gained was “potentially actionable” but declined to provide details.
Mujahed reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.