US drone attacks on Yemen are nothing new. Since Al Qaeda militants rammed a small boat packed with explosives into the hull of the USS Cole as it refueled in Aden, the deepwater harbor in south Yemen, in October 2000, American airpower has been hunting Al Qaeda targets in Yemen’s remote and rugged tribal hinterlands.
The campaign was patchy and fairly hit and miss. In the wake of the failed suicide bombing of a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the US stepped up its hunt for leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based branch of the terrorist group.
But it was not until last month that, in the public domain at least, missiles from a US drone were confirmed to have taken out a senior AQAP leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, believed responsible for planning the failed Christmas Day attack.
Awlaki’s assassination was swiftly followed by a second drone strike which reportedly killed his son and eight other AQAP members, though key military leaders of AQAP such as Nasser Wahayshi and Qassem Raymi are believed to remain at large.
Yemeni officials familiar with the US military drive against al-Qaida in Yemen, quoted in an AP report, said a shift of strategy by the US was finally yielding results. Human assets on the ground are directly providing actionable intelligence to US commanders, said the report, rather than relying entirely on Yemen's security agencies which the Americans have long considered inefficient or even suspected of leaking word on planned operations.
The Yemeni sources said there were as many as 3,000 informers on the US payroll around the country — some without even knowing it.
But Ali Saif Hassan, director of the Sanaa-based Political Development Forum, suggested there might also be a political angle to the dramatic escalation in successful US drone strikes against AQAP.
“We must realize that most US drone attacks on AQAP targets were accurate after President Saleh came back from Saudi Arabia. This raises question marks. Why weren’t the raids accurate before his return, though tens of drone attacks took place this year and rarely hit their target.
“Yemen’s government is now seriously cooperating with the US in its war on terror, while in the past it was not too serious. This is why all the targets were accurate over the last month. In the past, the government’s cooperation was not up to the level expected by the US. But since Saleh’s return from Saudi, US authorities have more freedom when attacking AQAP targets.”