Conflict & Justice

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


A boy looks at the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda April 19, 2014.



Over the weekend, US and Yemeni forces staged "massive and unprecedented" attacks against al-Qaeda forces based in Yemen.

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

"These strikes involved drones from the US," says Gregory Johnsen, a national security fellow at BuzzFeed. "According to recent reports, US special forces were involved in ferrying some Yemeni counter-terrorism units ... in order to carry out raids. There were also air strikes on a suspected al-Qaeda training camp."

Johnsen believes "this is the most intense, most concentrated and most sustained period of strikes in Yemen since President Obama first took office."

But he says it is hard to know exactly what occurred because the operations are considered covert and officials don't provide specific information on them.

"So this leads to a lot of confusion," he says, "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 Yemeni government say 55 to 65 "militants" were killed. 

It's not clear if the dead include any high-ranking leaders, though it is rumored that Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a former aide to Osama Bin Laden, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, al-Qaeda's chief bomb-maker, were among the targets. DNA tests are being performed on the bodies.

In a video released last week, al-Wuhayshi was seen pledging to fight Western "crusaders." That might be one explanation for the timing of the strike, Johnsen says, but the timing could also have been linked to new intelligence regarding top-level militants.

What is confusing is that the US claims to have nearly defeated al-Qaeda. President Obama said that the group was a shadow of its former self in his latest State of the Union speech, and yet, recent videos show al-Qaeda militants meeting in the open in Yemen. 

Johnsen believes the US government has done a poor job of explaining the war against al-Qaeda. "There is this tendency," he says, "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."

Johnsen, who wrote the book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia, says al-Qaeda has changed since those first years after 9/11.

"So what is 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," he says. "But 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."

He says what worries many people is that "the US has been bombing Yemen now going on five years on a pretty steady basis, but ... the organization itself seems to be growing stronger in spite of all the bombs."