SAN'A, Yemen — Backed by U.S. intelligence, Yemeni forces struck a series of suspected al-Qaida hideouts Thursday, including a meeting of senior leaders, killing at least 30 militants in the country's stepped-up campaign against the terror network, the government said.
The airstrikes were Yemen's second such major assault on al-Qaida in a week, at a time when the United States has dramatically hiked its aid to the government to eliminate the expanding presence of the terror group. Washington fears that al-Qaida could turn fragmented, unstable Yemen into a new Afghanistan-like safe haven in a highly strategic location on the border with oil-rich U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon recently confirmed it is has poured nearly $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year – compared to none in 2008. The U.S. military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
Yemen's deputy defense minister, Rashad al-Alaimy, told parliament that Thursday's strikes were carried out "using intelligence aid from Saudi Arabia and the United States of America in our fight against terrorism."
The strikes killed three important leadership members, al-Alaimy said, but he did not identify them.
Yemeni officials refused to comment on who they believed was present at Thursday's main target: a gathering of senior al-Qaida figures in Rafd, a remote mountain valley in eastern Shabwa province, a region where militants have been given refuge with tribes discontent with the San'a government.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Muslim preacher who had been in contact with alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, may have also been among those killed. The Washington Post reports that he was believed to have been at the meeting, according to the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, and that Awlaki's house was also reportedly the target of another raid by Yemeni forces. The Post had no information on whether or nor Awlaki had been hurt or killed; CBS News says two senior officials they spoke to claimed the reports of his death were inaccurate.
A Rafd resident said that a midlevel figure in al-Qaida's Yemen branch, Mohammed Ahmed Saleh Omair, was among those killed. The resident, Awad al-Daghary, told The Associated Press by telephone that bearded al-Qaida fighters brought the bodies of Omair and three others killed in the strike to al-Daghary's tribe for burial. Two of the bodies were of members of the tribe who had run off to join al-Qaida, he said.
Further strikes Thursday targeted al-Qaida hideouts on the border between Shabwa and neighboring Abyan province, the Supreme Security Committee said in a statement.
It said 30 al-Qaida militants were killed in the strikes. Yemeni security officials refused to give details on any figures believed to be among the dead.
In a separate operation, 25 suspected al-Qaida members were arrested Wednesday in San'a, the Interior Ministry said. Security forces set up checkpoints in the capital to control traffic flow as part of a campaign to clamp down on terrorism.
Al-Alaimy, the deputy defense minister, said the operations were carried out after security officials received information about al-Qaida plans to carry out suicide attacks in the capital San'a against the British Embassy and foreign schools.
Thursday's strikes come a week after warplanes and security forces on the ground attacked what authorities said was an al-Qaida training camp in the area of Mahsad in the southern province of Abyan – the largest assault on al-Qaida in years.
Al-Alaimy told parliament that 23 militants were killed in the strike, including Yemenis, Saudis, Egyptians and Pakistanis. Witnesses, however, put the number killed at over 60 in the heaviest strike and said the dead were mostly civilians.
The United States has been pressing Yemen for well over a year to take tougher action against al-Qaida, which has steadily been building up its presence in the country, with fighters arriving from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Yemen's government has been distracted by other internal problems. It is fighting a fierce war against Shiite rebels who rose up in the north near the border with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi forces have gotten directly involved, battling rebels who have crossed over into its territory. San'a is also struggling with a seccessionist movement in the once-independent south as well as trying to deal with rampant poverty.
The central government has little control outside the capital, and many of the tribes that control large parts of the rugged, undeveloped desert nation are angry at San'a and are willing to take in al-Qaida militants. To the frustration of U.S. officials, San'a itself has at times in the past struck deals with individual al-Qaida figures, letting them go free in return for promises not to engage in terror activity.
All those factors have made Yemen an attractive refuge for al-Qaida, and raised U.S. fears that the beleaguered nation could collapse into chaos and become another Afghanistan. Yemen not only lies next to Saudi Arabia and near the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, it overlooks vital sea routes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The country was scene of one of al-Qaida's most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors.