SANAA, Yemen – Two airstrikes Thursday in south Yemen killed seven al-Qaida militants, including two top operatives, officials said. Yemeni soldiers, meanwhile, shelled a gathering of al-Qaida fighters elsewhere in the south, killing 10 militants.
The attacks could be another setback for al-Qaida, coming just days after details emerged about a Saudi mole within the network who reportedly provided information allowing the CIA to target a key leader of Yemen's terror branch.
Thursday's airstrikes hit in the town of Jaar and northeast of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, Yemeni security officials said.
The United States has usually used drones to strike al-Qaida in Yemen. Yemeni officials said one of the raids was carried out by a drone but provided no details on the other.
There was no immediate word from Washington on whether it was behind the airstrikes. The two areas hit are part of large swaths of territory in the south that have been held by al-Qaida for a year.
The U.S. and Yemen have resumed cooperation in the fight against al-Qaida, which has taken advantage of Yemen's political turmoil to capture territory and plot attacks against American targets. Cooperation was suspended nearly a year ago during the popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The first, pre-dawn strike Thursday killed five militants, hitting a house on the western outskirts of Jaar where they were staying and completely leveling the structure.
One of those killed was a senior member of the terror network in charge of armament, known by his moniker al-Galadi, Yemeni officials said. The man is originally from another province, Marib, and his family arrived later in the day in Jaar for his burial, the officials said.The other four militants killed were not immediately identified.
The second airstrike hit in Shaqra, northeast of Zinjbar, killing two militants, the Yemeni officials said. They said one of those killed was al-Qaida's second-in-command for Lawder, a town further north that was controlled by the group last year until its residents drove the militants out. The militants have since been trying to stage a comeback in Lawder.
The Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Later Thursday, Yemeni soldiers shelled a gathering of militants outside Zinjibar, killing 10 fighters, the Defense Ministry said.
Yemen has been a source of serious concern to Washington because it was the launching pad for two foiled al-Qaida attacks on U.S. territory that were potentially disastrous: the Christmas 2009 attempt to down an American airliner over Detroit with an underwear bomb and the sending of printer cartridges packed with explosives to Chicago-area synagogues in 2010.
The Associated Press this week disclosed that the CIA thwarted a plot by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb described as an improvement on the 2009 underwear bomb because of the absence of metal which could have made it undetectable by conventional airport scanners.
The would-be bomber was actually a double-agent working for Saudi Arabia's security services. Saudi officials worked with the CIA to deliver the sophisticated new bomb directly to the U.S. government.
Before he was whisked to safety, the spy reportedly provided intelligence that helped the CIA kill al-Qaida's senior operations leader in Yemen, Fahd al-Quso, who died in a drone strike last weekend.