More than 30 airstrikes in Yemen mark escalated fight against terror group

PHOTO: A man stands on the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 16, 2017. PlayHani Mohammed/AP Photo
WATCH Two nights of air strikes in Yemen

The U.S. military has launched more than 30 airstrikes in Yemen over the past two nights targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to U.S. officials. The airstrikes indicate a higher level of operations being taken against the terror group by the U.S. military.

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More than 25 airstrikes were conducted Thursday, the first U.S. military action since the deadly U.S. raid in late-January intended to gather intelligence on the terror group.

As was the case before, the second night of airstrikes targeted targeted AQAP militants, artillery, fighting positions and equipment in three Yemeni provinces. The airstrikes were again conducted by a mix of unmanned and manned aircraft.

While U.S. military airstrikes in Yemen are a regular occurrence, there have not been so many at one time as occurred Thursday and Friday.

"U.S. forces will continue to target AQAP militants and facilities in order to disrupt the terrorist organization's plots, and ultimately to protect American lives," said Capt. Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesman.

He would not disclose the scope of further operations but indicated it would involve further targeting of AQAP's main areas of operations inside Yemen.

Without specifying plans, Davis said the U.S. is undertaking a sustained campaign in areas of Yemen where AQAP is most active. He said no U.S. ground troops have been involved in, or even in the vicinity of, firefights there since a late-January special operations raid that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens.

Davis said the airstrikes did not result from intelligence gathered by the Navy SEAL raid on an AQAP compound. “The planning for this, the momentum for this was something that was building well before January 20,” said Davis. A separate U.S. official said that though the airstrikes were not the direct result of the Jan. 28 raid, intelligence from it confirmed information about the targets.

He said the strikes and the January raid on an AQAP compound are part of a plan developed late last year by U.S. military commanders who proposed “to work at a much more advanced level” with partner forces on the ground in Yemen.

According to Davis the January raid and the new airstrikes were authorized by President Trump who has delegated authority to U.S. Central Command for further military action as needed.

The Jan. 28 raid, conducted by SEAL Team Six in rural southern Yemen, was intended as an intelligence gathering mission targeting a known Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula compound, officials have said.

Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens was killed in an intense firefight that occurred during the raid, and five other U.S. service members were wounded by enemy fire or injured in an MV-22 Osprey hard landing, officials said.

Fourteen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters were killed in the raid, the U.S. military said. An ongoing U.S. Central Command review has determined that some civilians were also killed, possibly including children. Local reports in Yemen have said that as many as 25 civilians may have been killed during the raid.

Some of the intelligence gathered in the raid included phone numbers, email addresses and messaging app identities for hundreds of AQAP sympathizers in the region and the West, a U.S. official told ABC News Thursday.

A defense official told reporters Friday that intelligence has helped American officials understand the AQAP network “and further develop it out”. He called it “good information” that was "potentially actionable".

The official described Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as one of the top threat to national security because of their continuing plans for terrorist attacks against the United States and Western targets.