October 18, 2013
Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed that its September 30 attack on a military base in eastern Yemen was focused on the destruction of an American drone operations command-and-control room. In its statement, AQAP said that its attack was directed against an “intelligence and operations room” at the Mukalla air base and promised that further attacks on American drone installations would follow: “Such joint security targets, which participate with the Americans in their war on the Muslim people, are a legitimate target for our operations, and we will puncture these eyes that the enemy uses” (Shumukh al-Islam, October 14). However, Yemeni officials denied that any American drone operations room existed at the base, saying the command-and-control room there was dedicated exclusively to anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea (Reuters, October 14).
AQAP’s claim referred to an attack by Islamist militants on the headquarters of the Yemen Army’s Second Military Region at the port of Mukalla, capital of Yemen’s eastern Hadramawt governorate. The operation began with the detonation of a car-bomb at the entrance gate of the base, followed by the infiltration of militants disguised as Yemeni Special Forces personnel (Saba [Sana’a], September 30; Yemen Post, October 3). The tactic created massive confusion at the base, allowing the militants to seize a number of soldiers as hostages before taking taking refuge in a three-storey building.
The military responded with a fierce counter-attack that deployed Special Forces troops from Sana’a using RPGs, missiles and fire from four tanks that destroyed much of the installation during a three-day standoff. Four soldiers were reported killed and nine wounded in the effort to re-take the base from Islamist militants who claimed to have killed dozens of officers in the initial attack (Mukalla2011.net, October 1; Felix News Agency, October 5; Reuters, October 14; Yemen Post, October 3).
The attack came only days after AQAP strikes in southern Yemen killed 31 soldiers and policemen in southern Yemen (Reuters, September 30). Other air bases have been targeted by AQAP this year, including al-Anad airbase in Lahj governorate, where three pilots were killed by gunmen on motorcycles only days after the base’s gas tanks were set ablaze (Yemen Times, May 9).
Not long after the attack on the Hadramawt military headquarters, a senior intelligence officer was killed in Mukalla on October 10 (Yemen Post, October 11). AQAP’s assassination campaign has claimed the lives of some 90 senior officers of Yemen’s security forces since the 2011 uprising against the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen Observer, September 1).
Yemen’s current president, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, reported that he has requested the provision of armed drones from the United States, saying that the American drone attacks have “widely curtailed al-Qaeda activities” while describing claims of significant civilian casualties as “exaggerated” (SABA [Sana’a], August 22; Yemen Online, August 24). While the Yemeni request for armed drones remains under consideration, Yemen’s air force took delivery of two American surveillance aircraft in mid-September (AP, September 16).
Despite the president’s enthusiasm for armed drones, there have been calls in Yemen for a review of the nation’s counterterrorism strategy to address the root causes of Islamist extremism rather than continuing the pursuit of an exclusively military response. In Hadramawt, the influential Imam Abu al-Harith Omar bin Salim Bawazir has claimed some success in persuading militants to abandon al-Qaeda’s ideology and “distorted” approach to Islam, though he complains of a lack of support for these efforts from authorities (Yemen Post, October 11). Local human rights groups in Hadramawt have also complained of the “negative effects” of American drone strikes in the region (Mukalla Online, October 10). Yemeni sources indicate that over 30 American drone strikes on suspected militants have taken place in Yemen since the beginning of the year (Felix News Agency, September 1).
While the internal debate in Yemen over the use of American drones continues, the Sahelian nation of Niger has requested the deployment of American armed drones in that country to “collect intelligence and conduct operations” against Islamist militants who took refuge in Niger after being driven out of northern Mali by joint French-African Union military operations (Reuters, September 19).
This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on October 18, 2013