Key US counter-terrorism actions in Yemen
The US Department of Defense is primarily responsible for counter-terrorism activities in Yemen, just as it is in Somalia. CENTCOM is the lead Pentagon command. Joint Special Operations Command – or JSOC – is the elite force often credited with attacks in Yemen aimed at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and more recently, Ansar al-Sharia.
US activity has at various times consisted of cruise missile strikes, naval bombardments, air strikes and more recently, drone strikes launched from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and elsewhere. Attacks are at times in conjunction with, or in support of, the Yemen military.
The CIA has only recently taken a more aggressive role, reportedly operating a drone fleet from a secret base ‘somewhere in the Gulf.’ Actions against alleged militants are at times combined operations involving both the CIA and JSOC, for example with the killing of Anwar al Awlaki in September 2011.
As Yemen came under severe pressure during the Arab Spring and militants seized control of cities and towns in the south, the US significantly stepped up its attacks, most notably with drone strikes.
The events detailed below are those actions which have been reported by US administration and intelligence officials, credible media, academics and other sources since 2001. The Bureau will continue to add to its knowledge base, and welcomes input and corrections from interested parties.
Many of the US attacks have been confirmed by senior American or Yemeni officials. However some events are only speculatively attributed to the US, or are indicative of US involvement. For example precision night-time strikes on moving vehicles, whilst often attributed to the Yemen Air Force, are more likely to be the work of US forces. We therefore class all strikes in Yemen as either ‘confirmed’ or ‘possible’.
Both the Pentagon and CIA have been operating drones over Yemen. But the US has also launched strikes with other weapons systems, including conventional jet aircraft and cruise missiles. The Bureau records these operations as ‘additional US attacks’.
Yemen’s President Saleh signed a $400m deal with the Bush administration, as part of which the US created a ‘counter-terrorism camp’ in Yemen run by the CIA, US Marines and Special Forces. The deal was made with CIA Director George Tenet, who ‘provided Saleh’s forces with helicopters, eavesdropping equipment and 100 Army Special Forces members to train an anti-terrorism unit. He also won Saleh’s approval to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over the country’. According to journalist and military expert Jeremy Scahill the Yemen camp was backed up by Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, which housed Predator drones. Among the forces inserted alongside the trainers were members of a clandestine military intelligence unit within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) known as The Activity. While officially in Yemen as trainers, they also reportedly began to find and track al Qaeda suspects.
During a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney, Yemen confirmed the expanded US Special Forces presence of around 100 troops (see YEM001), and to allowing them to train its Republican Guard. ‘In Yemen, we are working with the government to prevent al Qaeda forces from regrouping there,’ Mr Cheney said in Egypt. An adviser to Yemen’s President Saleh told the New York Times:
April 10 2002
Yemen was officially designated a ‘combat zone’ in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, allowing the US to begin deployment of US Special Forces. It was listed as part of the Afghanistan combat zone.
September 19 2002
The US was reported to have moved some 800 troops, including up to 200 elite Special Forces troops to Djibouti along with an amphibious assault ship, the USS Belleau Wood, in readiness ‘for rapid deployment against al Qaeda in Yemen.’ The Yemeni Government denied that it would allow US troops to take part in any operations on its territory.
In the first known US targeted assassination using a drone, a CIA Predator launched from Djibouti struck a car killing six al Qaeda suspects. A seventh individual may have escaped. The dead included Al Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al Harithi, also known as Abu Mi (one of the alleged masterminds behind the USS Cole attack) and Abu Ahmad al Hijazi, a naturalised US citizen also known as Kemal or Kamal Darwish. Darwish, a US-born Yemeni, was suspected of being the recruiter of a terror support cell that had been rounded up in Buffalo, New York state. The other four killed reportedly belonged to the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, and were identified as Salih Hussain Ali al Nunu or Zono (aka Abu Humam); Awsan Ahmad al Tarihi (aka Abu al Jarrah); Munir Ahmad Abdallah al Sauda (Abu Ubaidah); and Adil Nasir al Sauda (Abu Usamah, initially identified as al-Qia’gaa). All six names were released by the Yemen government three weeks after the attack.
Harithi was allegedly traced after using a mobile phone that US intelligence had linked to him. A truck-mounted listening device in Kuwait intercepted the call. A JSOC signals intelligence team also participated. In a leaked diplomatic cable from 2004, the US Ambassador to Yemen told an Amnesty International delegation that:
The CIA and Centcom co-operated on the strike, with the drone reportedly launched from a base in nearby Djibouti. According to Lt General Michael DeLong, deputy head of Centcom at the time: ‘George Tenet [director CIA] calls me one morning and said, “We’ve got our target.” I said, “OK, we’re good. I’m going down to the UAV room.” [in Tampa, Florida]. I’m sitting back like this, looking at the wall and talking to George Tenet. And he goes, “You going to make the call?” And I said, “I’ll make the call.” He says, “This SUV over here is the one that has Ali in it.” I said, “OK, fine.” You know, “Shoot him.” They lined it up and shot it. It’s a pretty good-size explosive. In an SUV, you can imagine a big explosion. So we knew everybody in the vehicle was dead.’
Paul Wolfowitz, assistant US Secretary of Defense, appeared to admit to CNN five days later that the strike was the work of the CIA. Reporter Paula Ressa asked him whether ‘in terms of strategy, what we saw in Yemen, for example with the CIA strike. Is that change in strategy now?’ Wolfowitz responded: ‘Not fundamentally. It’s a very successful tactical operation, and one hopes each time you get a success like that, not only to have gotten rid of somebody dangerous but to have imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures.’ It would be 10 years before a US official – on that occasion President Obama – would again admit on the record to the US targeted killing programme.
President Saleh arrived in Washington on a state visit ‘with a wish list‘ of rewards for being ‘an indispensable ally.’ He had eliminated every name on a list of al Qaeda leaders the CIA had given him in 2001. And in 2005 he swiftly dealt with a terrorist cell threatening to attack the US embassy in Sanaa. He ‘needed to replenish his armoury’ with US help to fight the third war in three years with Houthi secessionists in the north. But, according to Foreign Policy, Saleh had been so successful at tackling al Qaeda that Washington’s priority in Yemen had shifted from counter-terrorism to promoting democracy. Al Qaeda was yesterday’s problem the US explained. With little sign of political reform in Yemen coupled insidious corruption, the State Department cut aid to Sanaa by $20m. The World Bank also slashed aid from $420m to $280m because of government corruption. Saleh ‘finally lost it’ on the flight back to Yemen after his three day visit. He fired his entire team of economic advisors within minutes of take-off. Weeks later however, ‘when Saleh had calmed down, he rehired most of them.’
The article was published at Yemen: reported US covert actions 2001-2011.