Tag Archives: covert action Yemen

Yemen War: the Biggest Benefactor AQAP

Makulla port, Yemen, seized by AQAP. image from wikipedia

Yemen: Local militias backed by Saudi Arabia, special forces from the United Arab Emirates and Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants all fought on the same side this week to wrest back control over most of Yemen’s second city, Aden, from pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, according to local residents and Houthi forces.

The U.S. has backed a Saudi-led coalition that launched airstrikes against the Houthis…. [But at the same time],  the U.S. continues to conduct separate airstrikes targeting AQAP militants in Yemen.  Meanwhile, Saudi-backed militias are spearheading efforts to roll back Houthi gains and reinstate the government that the rebels drove into exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. But they have turned to Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, for help, according to local residents and a senior Western diplomat. This puts the U.S.-allied Gulf kingdom on the same side as one of the world’s most notorious extremist groups…

The AQAP militants are exploiting the chaos to expand across Yemen, according to Western officials. At the same time, the regional coalition has been criticized for ignoring the group’s territorial gains since the onset of the conflict, while relentlessly targeting Houthi rebels.

The local militias used trucks and weapons supplied by the Saudi-led military coalition to finally push the Houthis out of the Aden ports after a five-month battle, local residents said. AQAP militants celebrated the victory alongside the militias, parading cadavers of Houthis on a main commercial street in the city to a cheering crowd, according to residents and video posted online.

Aden wasn’t the first victory for AQAP in this conflict. In April, the group captured al-Mukalla, the country’s largest eastern seaport. The Saudi-backed militias have also acknowledged that they fought with AQAP against the Houthis in Ataq, the capital of Shabwa province, earlier this year.

Since 2011, the U.S. has spent nearly $500 million to train and equip Yemen’s security forces to battle AQAP. The U.S. has also backed the Saudi-led regional coalition with intelligence and logistical support since it formed in March 2015, imposing a crippling aerial and naval blockade across Yemen.  American officials acknowledge that AQAP is one of the war’s biggest benefactor…

Excerpts from Al Qaeda Helps Saudi-Backed Forces in Yemen Dow Jones Business News, July 16, 2015.

The CIA Drone Program in Yemen: the cover up

Hellfire missiles loaded on United States Marine Corps Super Cobra.  Image from wikipedia

A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, which al-Qaeda militants once controlled. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.  Chaos. Flames. Corpses. Then, a second missile struck.  Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also perished that day, and another man later died from his wounds.

The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaeda militants and that its Soviet-era jets had carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that all the victims were civilians who lived in a village near Radda, in central Yemen. U.S. officials last week acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike.  “Their bodies were burning,” recalled Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, 27, who was riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. “How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaeda.”

More than three months later, the incident offers a window into the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults. In this case, the deaths have bolstered the popularity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemen affiliate, which has tried to stage attacks on U.S. soil several times.

Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its assertion that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who was thought to be in a car traveling on the same road.

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.  In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.  “Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”…

After Osama bin Laden’s death last year, Yemen emerged as a key battlefield in the Obama administration’s war on Islamist militancy. AQAP members are among those on a clandestine “kill list” created by the administration to hunt down terrorism suspects. It is a lethal campaign, mostly fueled by unmanned drones, but it also includes fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles fired from the sea.  This year, there have been at least 38 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit Web site that tracks American drone attacks. That is significantly more than in any year since 2009, when President Obama is thought to have ordered the first drone strike.

The Radda attack was one of the deadliest since a U.S. cruise missile strike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians, including women and children, in the mountainous region of al-  Majala in southern Yemen. After that attack, many tribesmen in that area became radicalized and joined AQAP.,,,

“The government is trying to kill the case,” said Abdul Rahman Berman, the executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, or HOOD, a local human rights group. “The government wants to protect its relations with the U.S.”  After the 2009 strike in al-Majala, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the assault. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, according to a U.S. Embassy e-mail leaked by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks…

On extremist Web sites and Facebook pages, grisly pictures of the attack’s aftermath, with bodies tossed like rag dolls on the road, have been posted, coupled with condemnations of the government and the United States. In Sabool and Radda, youths have vowed to join al-Qaeda to fight the United States.

Excerpts, Sudarsan Raghavan,When U.S. drones kill civilians, Yemen’s government tries to conceal it, Washington Post, Dec. 24, 2012

See also the Drone War in Yemen

Covert Operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: tally and the civilians killed

From the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Pakistan September 2012 actions: Total CIA strikes in September: 3 Total killed in strikes in September: 12-18, of whom 0-3 were reportedly civilians; All actions 2004 – September 30 2012: Total Obama strikes: 294;Total US strikes since 2004: 346; Total reported killed: 2,570-3,337; Civilians reported killed: 474-884; Children reported killed: 176; Total reported injured: 1,232-1,366

After seven strikes in August – the most in a single month since October 2011 – September saw a pause in the bombing which lasted 20 days. The respite coincided with many and sometimes violent anti-US protests around the world. Muslims were inflamed by a blasphemous film, produced in the US and posted online. Up to 17 people died in riots across Pakistan as public outrage at drone strikes reportedly added to the violence.

On September 24 two named al Qaeda militants were killed by the CIA. Saleh al Turki ’was not on the FBI’s bounty list, but was a mid level AQ guy’. However Abu Kahsha al Iraqi was described as ‘a liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban’ and ‘long a target of Western counterterrorism agencies.’

Yemen September 2012 actions:Confirmed US drone strikes: 0; Further reported/possible US strike events: 4-5′ Total reported killed in US operations: 0-40;Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0-12  All actions 2002 – September 30 2012: Total confirmed US operations: 52-62; Total confirmed US drone strikes: 40-50; Possible additional US operations: 117-133; Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 61-71; Total reported killed: 357-1,026; Total civilians killed: 60-163; Children killed: 24-34

US and Yemeni officials were unusually reticent in September in attributing air strikes to United States air assets, including drones. That may have been due to the deaths of eleven named civilians in a botched airstrike in Radaa in central Yemen, the worst loss of civilian life since at least 12 civilians were killed in May. Victims of the strike were buried 18 days later in Dhamar with police pallbearers.  Abdulraouf al Dahab was the supposed target of the strike. But it missed the alleged militant leader’s car and hit civilian vehicles. A ten-year-old girl Daolah Nasser was killed with her parents. Two boys – Mabrook Mouqbal Al Qadari (13) and AbedalGhani Mohammed Mabkhout (12) – were also among those killed.  Some reports said US drones carried out the strike. The Yemen Air Force publicly claimed responsibility for the attack but it lacks the technical capability to strike a moving target.  That fact was confirmed by President Hadi on a visit to Washington, where he also claimed to approve every US strike carried out in Yemen, and downplayed civilian deaths  A suspected US drone killed at least six people, eight days after the Radaa strike. Said al Shehri was initially reported among the dead. But subsequent reports say the former Guantanamo inmate and al Qaeda’s number two in Yemen survived the attack.

Somalia September 2012 actions:  Total reported US operations: 0;All actions 2007 – September 30 2012 Total US operations: 10-23; Total US drone strikes: 3-9; Total reported killed: 58-170;  Civilians reported killed: 11-57; Children reported killed: 1-3

Once again no US combat operations were reported for September, although a former UN official told the Bureau that as much as 50% of secret actions by various forces operating in Somalia go unreported. Two previously unrecorded operations have been added to the Bureau’s data. These relate to possible US strikes on al Shabaab bases in Puntland in August, and in Kismayo in October 2011.  Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) troops finally struck al Shabaab’s last stronghold, Kismayo, in Operations Sledge Hammer alongside soldiers of the Somalia National Army. The KDF is fighting in Somalia as a part of the Amisom peacekeeping force and attacked Kismayo from the land and sea before dawn on September 28. Initial reports said they met with some resistance from al Shabaab but had taken control of the city’s port. It is possible that US forces assisted the operation.  A Somali diplomat told the Bureau that the outgoing Transitional Federal Government opened its doors to the US and others to fight al Shabaab, and in doing so allowed them ‘a licence to completely ignore any local or international law.’ US Special Forces and CIA are operating across Somalia. And the US is supporting proxy forces with training and weapons

Jack Serle and Chris Woods, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 2012 update, Oct. 1, 2012

The Drone War in Yemen; surgical strikes or a relentless signature campaign?

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.   Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.  If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months.  For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. The administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into al-Qaeda recruits.  A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to talk about what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen, but he said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”  U.S. officials acknowledge that the standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.  Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.  “How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”  U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment.

Proponents of the plan said improvements in U.S. intelligence collection in Yemen have made it possible to expand the drone campaign — and use signature strikes — while minimizing the risk of civilian casualties.  They also pointed to the CIA’s experience in Pakistan. U.S. officials said the agency killed more senior al-Qaeda operatives there with signature strikes than with those in which it had identified and located someone on its kill list.  In Pakistan, the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with drone operations.  The agency has cited the Pakistan experience to administration officials in arguing, perhaps counterintuitively, that it can be more effective against al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate if it doesn’t have to identify its targets before an attack. Obama, however, ruled out a similar push for such authority more than a year ago.

The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.

The agency’s strategy in Pakistan was centered on mounting a drone campaign so relentless that it allowed no time between attacks for al-Qaeda operatives to regroup. The use of signature strikes came to be seen as critical to achieving that pace.  The approach involved assembling threads of intelligence from multiple sources to develop telltale “signatures” of al-Qaeda activity based on operatives’ vehicles, facilities, communications equipment and patterns of behavior.  A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA became so adept at this that it could tell what was happening inside an al-Qaeda compound — whether a leader was visiting or explosives were being assembled, for example — based on the location and number of security operatives surrounding the site.  The agency might be able to replicate that success in Yemen, the former intelligence official said. But he expressed skepticism that White House officials, including counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, will approve the CIA’s request.  The situation in Pakistan’s tribal territory “is far less ambiguous than in Yemen,” the former official said. “Brennan has been deliberate in making sure targets we hit in Yemen are terrorist targets and not insurgents.”  As a result, the CIA has been limited to “personality” strikes in Yemen, meaning it can fire only in cases where it has clear evidence that someone on its target list is in a drone’s crosshairs.  Often, that requires information from multiple sources, including imagery, cellphone intercepts and informants on the ground….

Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear. In Pakistan, the CIA carries out every drone strike. But in Yemen, the United States has relied on a mix of capabilities, including drones flown by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as conventional military aircraft and warships parked off the coast.  The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

Excerpts, Greg Miller,CIA seeks new authority to expand Yemen drone campaign, Wasthington Post, April 18

See also

Who is the Boss? the CIA or JSOC

The Drone War in Yemen

The CIA Drone Program as a Violation of Human Rights

Who is the Boss, CIA or the JSOC? Drones in Yemen

The Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there.  Some of the the strikes, carried out by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have been focused in the southern part of the country, where insurgent forces have for the first time conquered and held territory as the Yemeni government continues to struggle against escalating opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule.

Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch drone strikes at will, each U.S. attack in Yemen — and those being conducted in nearby Somalia, most recently on Thursday near the southern port city of Kismayo — requires White House approval, senior administration officials said.  The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said intended targets must be drawn from an approved list of key members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deemed by U.S. intelligence officials to be involved in planning attacks against the West. White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan last week put their number at “a couple of dozen, maybe.”

Although several unconfirmed strikes each week have been reported by local media in Yemen and Somalia, the administration has made no public acknowledgment of the escalated campaign, and officials who discussed the increase declined to provide numbers.  The heightened air activity coincides with the administration’s determination this year that AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, poses a more significant threat to the United States than the core al-Qaeda group based in Pakistan. The administration has also concluded that AQAP has recruited at least a portion of the main insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, to its anti-Western cause.

From its initial months in office, the Obama administration has debated whether to extend the air attacks that have proved so effective in Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Military and intelligence officials have long argued in favor of attacks against al-Shabab camps in Somalia, which have been under overhead surveillance for years. Other officials have questioned the legal and moral justification for intervening in what, until recently, has been a largely domestic conflict.

The administration has said its legal authority to conduct such strikes, whether with fixed-wing planes, cruise missiles or drones, derives from the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing attacks against al-Qaeda and protection of the U.S. homeland, as well as the international law of self-defense.“The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan,” Brennan said in remarks prepared for delivery Friday night at Harvard Law School. “We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.”….

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping out in what is known as Change Square for several months, demanding an end to Saleh’s rule. The camp has remained quiet for weeks, but Reuters, citing doctors, reported Saturday that soldiers opened fire near the camp overnight and wounded eight protesters. The troops shot in the air to stop demonstrators from trying to expand the area of protest.   As the political conflict drags on, concern has increased over insurgent expansion and future cooperation with whatever government emerges in Yemen…..

Until May, 2011-