For the second consecutive night, US drones and jets continued striking Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, in a sign the Trump administration is ramping up operations as part of a broader campaign against the terrorist group long considered the biggest threat to the United States.
The U.S. military has conducted over 30 airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across three provinces in Yemen, according to Capt. Jeff Davis a Pentagon spokesman. It is not immediately clear if those airstrikes continued Friday night.
According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, the U.S. military has averaged 30 airstrikes a year since 2012. In only two nights this week, the U.S. military has already exceeded the five-year average.
On Monday, the Pentagon delivered a "preliminary plan" to defeat the Islamic State. Included in the plan was a broader look at defeating other terrorist groups "outside of Iraq and Syria" according to officials.
The new American airstrikes in Yemen come weeks after a Navy SEAL raid in Yemen on Jan. 29 which resulted in the death of Senior Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens, a member of the elite SEAL Team Six unit who carried out the operation. Since the raid, critics have called it a failure. On Friday, the Pentagon pushed back.
During a briefing with reporters, a US defense official said the intelligence gathered from the Navy SEAL raid on Jan 29 is “potentially actionable," which could thwart future terrorist attacks.
“It’s definitely helping us understand the [AQAP] network and further develop it out,” the official said.
“Large volumes of information,” were part of the stash of intelligence the SEALs collected on the target during the operation, the official said. “It’s good information,” he said.
On Jan 31, two days after raid, Fox News first reported “treasure trove” of intel taken in Navy SEAL raid including a computer and 10 mobile phones]
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in Yemen numbers slightly more than 3,000 fighters, according to the official.
AQAP is made up of local Yemenis mostly, who are able to “blend in more easily” to the local population through tribal ties, including marriage, said the official.
US officials say AQAP represents a greater threat to the US homeland than ISIS, because of its history pursuing "non-metallic" bombs which can slip through airport screening.
AQAP sent the "Underwear Bomber" on Christmas Day in 2009 who attempted to down an American airliner on its approach to Detroit from Europe.
The terrorist group also sent fighters to Paris to kill the staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
Some Somalis are also part of AQAP who share ideological ties as the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia is another Al Qaeda affiliate, the official said.
There were reports Friday, the US special operations troops took part in additional raids and firefights with Al Qaeda on the ground in Yemen as part of the ramp up against the terrorist group. Capt. Davis said those reports were false and no US ground troops had taken part in raids since the SEAL raid on Jan. 29.
But Davis said US forces have been moving "in and out" of Yemen recently.
The US military has been supporting forces from the United Arab Emirates for months against Al Qaeda militants in the coastal city of Mukalla.
The US embassy closed in Yemen two years ago, and a short time later more than 100 US special operations forces were also withdrawn. The lack of US military personnel on the ground the past two years has led to "gaps" in knowledge about the terrorist group, according to the defense official.
The US military is also supporting a broader Saudi-led campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015 who back former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted as part of the Arab Spring.