A Dec. 24 airstrike by Yemeni forces in the southeastern province of Shabwa was rumored to have killed a number of top operatives of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who were gathered for a high-level meeting. However, the status of these individuals remains unknown, and there are growing indications they may have survived the strike. Nevertheless, Yemeni and U.S. forces will continue putting pressure on the al Qaeda node, which already is reeling from December assaults.
Rumors have been swirling since Yemeni forces, with U.S. assistance, carried out a coordinated airstrike and ground assault Dec. 24 against a farm house near Rafdh in Shabwa province. The house was owned by Fahd al-Qus'a, the al Qaeda operative who took part in the USS Cole operation in 2000 but fell asleep and was unable to participate in the actual attack. Prior to the December strike, intelligence had indicated that top members and supporters of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — including its leader, Nasir al-Wahayshi, deputy Said al-Shihri and jihadist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki — had gathered for a meeting at the house following funeral services for al Qaeda operatives killed in earlier strikes. Initially, Yemeni government sources claimed the strike had been a tremendous success, taking out the AQAP top brass as well as a number of other operatives. Indeed, more than 30 AQAP members were said to have been killed and 29 arrested. In the weeks since the airstrike, however, the names of only a few AQAP operatives have been verified as killed or captured during the raid. The confirmed dead are Salih al-Dhughari, whose role in AQAP is unknown; Muhammad Ahmad Salih 'Amir (aka Muhammad Salih al-'Awlaqi), a relative of al-Qus'a's who condemned an earlier airstrike in a public speech that that appeared on Al Jazeera; and Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair, a mid-level AQAP figure. (click image to enlarge) While there also have been reports of six unnamed AQAP affiliates killed in the strike, there has yet to be any direct confirmation that al-Wahayshi, al-Shihri, Anwar al-Awlaki (who openly claims not to be a member of AQAP) or any other AQAP leaders were among the dead. In fact, there is growing evidence that the apex of AQAP's leadership survived the attack, leaving the farm house minutes before the missiles struck. A Dec. 17 airstrike in southern Yemen, reportedly conducted by manned U.S. Navy aircraft, killed scores of AQAP operatives and resulted in the capture of more than 30. Among the dead were former Guantanamo detainee Hani Abdul Musalih al-Shalan and Mohammad Saleh al-Kazimi, the leader of AQAP in Abyan province. Still, top AQAP operatives were able to escape, including Qasim al-Raymi (aka Abu Hurayrah al-San'ani), one of 23 individuals who escaped from prison in Sanaa in February 2006 and who was responsible for the July 2007 bombing in Marib that killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers, and Hizam Mujali, the reputed "leader of the suicide bombers." The survival of these operatives, along with any leaders who escaped the Dec. 24 raid, would be fortuitous for AQAP. Al-Wahayshi and al-Shihri were (and perhaps still are) seasoned jihadists who were instrumental in building the regional al Qaeda franchise into a cohesive group able to carry out attacks both domestically and internationally. Despite the onslaught of coordinated Yemeni-U.S. attacks against the group, AQAP still poses a significant domestic threat, evidenced by the recent closure of the U.S., U.K., Japanese and French embassies in Sanaa for fear of suicide bomber attacks. These threats notwithstanding, pressure on AQAP, already strong by mid-December, is only going to increase following the Dec. 25 attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian national trained and claimed by AQAP. Though the identity and status of the bombmaker is unknown, there is every reason to believe that Yemen's counterterrorism operations, along with U.S. intelligence and military support, will intensify in the coming months. This will have a tremendous impact on AQAP's ability to carry out attacks, despite the fact that its core leadership may have survived the Dec. 24 strike.