Dozens of suspected al Qaeda fighters have been killed in the latest in a string of strikes against the terror organization’s Yemen affiliate over the weekend, Yemeni officials say, just days after the affiliate released a video of a large daytime militant rally.
A Yemeni official with the Supreme Security Committee told ABC News overnight that on April 19, an American drone strike took out 10 members of al Qaeda but also killed three civilians who were nearby. The civilians “were in a pickup truck that suddenly appeared next to the car that was targeted,” the official said.
The next day the committee announced three additional aerial strikes that “completely destroyed” an al Qaeda training facility. Mohammed Albasha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., tweeted from his personal account this morning that a preliminary assessment of the strikes showed two dozen militants had been killed without any civilian casualties. Later Albasha updated the count to 55 killed, many of them foreign fighters, purportedly including three high value targets. The HVTs, as they are known in counter-terrorism lingo, have not been identified.
The CIA, which in the past has operated lethal drone strikes in Yemen, had no comment on the anti-terrorist operations, nor did President Obama’s National Security Council. Today a spokesperson for the Pentagon, which also conducts drone operations in Yemen, declined to address the strikes directly.
“I can’t speak to specific operations... but as you know we’ve got a very strong and collaborative relationship with the Yemeni government,” Col. Steve Warren told reporters. “We work closely together with them on various initiatives in the counterterrorism realm, but I don’t have any specifics to comment on.”
The U.S. State Department, which would also only say the U.S. has a “strong, collaborative relationship with the Yemeni government,” told reporters today that according to the Yemenis, “these individuals were planning to target civilian and military facilities.”
The strikes came just days after al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), released a highly-produced propaganda video showing its leader, Nasir al-Wahishi, speaking before dozens of fighters, including other high-level AQAP targets.
An American official told ABC News then that such a large gathering was “atypical.” A State Department spokesperson denied that the video was necessarily a show of strength by the terror group, but said, “We know they’ve been gaining strength.”
Several U.S. officials said the timing of the recent air strikes in Yemen was prompted to counter planning for terror attacks inside Yemen and not the video of the large AQAP gathering.
Top U.S. officials have previously described AQAP as the most dangerous of the al Qaeda affiliates, moreso than the terror group’s core cadre led by Ayman al-Zawahiri in southwest Asia.
Counted among AQAP’s members is Ibrahim al-Asiri, a devious bombmaker who is suspected of constructing explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges for the failed cargo bomb plot of 2010.
In a statement released today, the Yemeni government said they are still in the process of determining the identities of those killed in the strikes.
Still, Albasha said, “AQAP will not vanish overnight. Threats of al Qaeda will not be eliminated with kinetic action. A holistic approach is needed.”
ABC News’ Brian Hartman, James Gordon Meek and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.