An intense strike against al-Qaeda in Yemen shows the US is still struggling to contain the terrorist group

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In Yemen over the weekend, a series of drone strikes reportedly killed 55 people. The US has been carrying out strikes against terrorism suspects in Yemen for years and they've been hugely controversial, especially because they've killed civilians as well as their intended targets. Gregory Johnsen is a fellow at Buzzfeed who's following the story. He's also written extensively about Yemen. Johnsen says the latest drone strikes took place over the span of the three days.

Gregory Johnsen: What we know is that on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, there were a series of strikes across southern Yemen, basically over three governances. These strikes involve drones from the US, according to recent reports, US special forces were involved in ferrying some Yemeni counter-terrorism units down to particular areas in order to carry out raids. There were also air strikes on a suspected al-Qaeda training camp, so what we've seen is basically this is the most intense, most concentrated and most sustained period of strikes in Yemen since President Obama first took office.

Werman: You said that these were US drones but there's been some controversy over who actually called in these strikes, what country did it, so why the misunderstanding?

Johnsen: One of the things is I think that's just a natural reaction of how reticent the United States has been to talk about some of these covert programs. One of the things we have going on is that you see very high officials, people like President Obama, who will speak in vague generalities about the US drone war in a place like Yemen, but then you have the CIA, the Pentagon and other officials who can't speak about the program on the record because it's covert. This leads to a lot of confusion, it leads to a lot of uncertainty about what actually took place. What we know for sure is that there were several strikes and a number of people are killed. The US and the Yemeni government is saying anywhere from 55 to 65 of what they call "militants" were killed, but unfortunately at this point, because the strikes took place in such a remote region of Yemen, we just have no way of verifying who was actually killed, whether these were the high value targets. People like the master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, or the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. We just know at this point.

Werman: In other words, we don't know whether those 55 people were all high value targets or they could've all been innocent bystanders, right?

Johnsen: It would be a stretch to suggest that they were all high value targets. The number of high value targets in Yemen that the US has I don't think exceeds 55, but the suggestion, and the Yemeni officials I've talked to and the reporting that's come out from the American side suggests that the vast majority of these individuals are militants, but then of course we have to remember that how the US counts these is any military-aged man from the age of 16 up to about 80 is considered a militant until proven otherwise.

Werman: And yet the White House has created this impression that al-Qaeda is on the ropes. In his most recent State of the Union speech, Obama said al-Qaeda is a shadow of itself, and yet we see videos of al-Qaeda meeting very brazenly out in the open in Yemen. These strikes have been described as massive and unprecedented, so is Yemen now al-Qaeda's safe haven.

Johnsen: The United States and particularly the United States government has not done a very good job about talking about where it is in this war against al-Qaeda. There is this tendency to either view al-Qaeda as being almost defeated or al-Qaeda as being ascendent. And I think what US government officials should be doing is really talking about the changing nature of the threat. So al-Qaeda, what is often considered al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that organization has been decimated by drone strikes, by US raids and by the war in Afghanistan, but what we're seeing is that as the US has done such a good job in those places, al-Qaeda is cropping up in places like Yemen, in Libya, in Iraq, in other places around the middle east, and so the US really has to deal with a much different threat than it did in the initial years after September 11th. One of the things I think that worries a number of people is that the US has been bombing Yemen now going on five years on a pretty steady basis. But instead of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula growing weaker, growing smaller, having fewer and fewer members, what we see is actually the opposite. The organization itself seems to be growing stronger in spite of all the bombs.

Werman: Gregory Johnsen, a Michael Hastings fellow at Buzzfeed, thanks very much.

Johnsen: Thank you, Marco.