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United States Ramps Up Airstrikes Against Al Qaeda in Yemen

Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, has been convulsed by civil strife for more than two years. In the west, Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the United States’ main counterterrorism partner in the country, and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Sunni Arab countries that back Mr. Hadi.

In the country’s central and southern regions, the United States, along with the United Arab Emirates and allied Yemeni tribesmen, have been waging a shadow war against more than 3,000 members of the Qaeda affiliate and their tribal fighters.

The Qaeda branch has tried at least three times to blow up American airliners, without success. The group has specialized in developing nonmetallic bombs that can be inserted into body cavities to avoid detection. Its top bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and his protégés are still believed to be actively plotting against the United States, counterterrorism officials say.

On Friday, a Defense Department official said the computers, cellphones and other materials seized during the SEAL team raid on Jan. 29 had, so far, yielded names, phone numbers and other contact information of suspected terrorists, and had enabled analysts to identify terrorist nodes in Yemen. Once correlated against information about known Qaeda terrorists — a process that could take weeks or months — the data could be used to carry out strikes against militants, the official said.

Information about the group and its plots was substantially curtailed when American advisers withdrew from Yemen in March 2015 after Mr. Hadi’s government was forced to flee from Sana, the country’s capital.

American commanders have said the potential of recovering a trove of new information about the Qaeda affiliate and its operations justified the risks taken by the Navy’s commandos.

Captain Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said the strikes conducted on Thursday and Friday were planned before the January raid and were part of a larger campaign in which planning started several months ago, during the Obama administration. “This is part of a plan to go after this very real threat,” Captain Davis told reporters on Friday.

He did not disclose specifically who or what was targeted, noting that analysts were still conducting damage assessments.

Mr. Trump in January authorized the Pentagon to conduct the kinds of strikes carried out this week at the same time he approved the ill-fated Special Operations raid, Captain Davis said. He emphasized that the airstrikes this week were “conducted in partnership with the government of Yemen and were coordinated.”

After the January raid, Mr. Hadi’s government withdrew permission for the United States to conduct Special Operations ground missions, a decision prompted by anger at the civilian casualties incurred in the assault.

This week’s attacks come at a time when the White House is considering giving the Pentagon more independent authority to conduct counterterrorism raids as part of an effort to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State and other militant organizations.

Such a step would allow military commanders to move more swiftly against terrorism suspects, streamlining a decision-making process that often dragged during the Obama administration, frustrating Pentagon officials.

The airstrikes early Friday struck targets in the southern province of Shabwa and lasted more than an hour, said a local government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent reprisals against him.

Large explosions forced many families to flee their homes. One of the strikes targeted a small cement-brick factory, killing four suspected Qaeda operatives related to Saad Atef Al Awlaki, a local senior Qaeda official. There were also similar strikes in Abyan and Baydha provinces on Friday.

The airstrikes appear to be the latest phase in rebuilding American counterterrorism operations in Yemen since the last 125 military advisers left the country in March 2015. Last May, American Special Operations forces helped Yemeni and Emirati troops evict Qaeda fighters from the port city of Al Mukalla.

Al Qaeda had used Al Mukalla as a base as the militants stormed through southern Yemen, capitalizing on the power vacuum caused by the country’s 14-month civil war and seizing territory, weapons and money.

Since then, Emirati and Yemeni troops have pushed Qaeda fighters deeper into the largely ungoverned spaces of the country’s south-central interior, where the largely indigenous militant group has joined with tribal sympathizers.

“A.Q.A.P. has long and deep ties in several regions of the country,” The Soufan Group, a political risk assessment firm in New York, said in an appraisal on Friday. “It is highly likely there will be more ground assaults involving U.S. Special Operations Forces in Yemen.”

Source: NYT > World

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