SANAA, Yemen — The U.S. has sharply escalated its drone war in Yemen, with military officials in the Arab country reporting 34 suspected al-Qaida militants killed in less than two weeks, including three strikes on Thursday alone in which a dozen died.
The action against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, comes amid a global terror alert issued by Washington.
Al-Qaida leaders more vulnerable
One Mideast official said the uptick is due to its leaders leaving themselves more vulnerable by moving from their normal hideouts toward areas where they could carry out attacks.
The U.S. and Britain evacuated diplomatic staff from the capital of Sanaa this week after learning of a threatened attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
Thursday’s first reported drone attack hit a car carrying suspected militants in the district of Wadi Ubaidah, about 109 miles east of Sanaa, and killed six, a security official said.
Badly burned bodies lay beside their vehicle, according to the official. Five of the dead were Yemenis, while the sixth was believed to be of another Arab nationality, he said.
The second drone attack killed three alleged militants in the al-Ayoon area of Hadramawt province in the south, the official said. The third, also in Hadramawt province, killed three more suspected militants in the al-Qutn area, he added.
Airstrikes targeting cars
All the airstrikes targeted cars, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The drone strikes have become a near-daily routine since they began July 27. So far, they have been concentrated in remote, mountainous areas where al-Qaida’s top five leaders are believed to have taken refuge.
But drones also have been seen and heard buzzing for hours over Sanaa, worrying residents who fear getting caught in the crossfire.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not talk about individual strikes or release information on how many are carried out. The program is run by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, with the military flying its drones out of Djibouti, and the CIA out of a base in Saudi Arabia.
Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breassale declined to comment Thursday and would not confirm the existence of a military drone program in Yemen. The CIA also declined to comment.
34 suspected militants killed
Since July 27, drone attacks have killed 34 suspected militants, according to an Associated Press count based on information provided by Yemeni security officials.
The terror network’s Yemeni offshoot bolstered its operations in Yemen more than a decade after key Saudi operatives fled here following a major crackdown in their homeland.
The drone strikes and a U.S.-backed offensive that began in June 2012 have driven militants from towns and large swaths of land they seized a year earlier, during Yemen’s political turmoil amid the Arab Spring.
The sudden drone barrage could further upset a population already angered by bombings that killed civilians, said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida and America’s War in Arabia.”
“It’s a really rapid increase when there was a long time where there were no drone strikes for weeks,” Johnsen said in an interview with the AP. “This has a lot of people in Yemen on edge.”
Johnsen said the U.S. faces a major problem in Yemen when it comes to intelligence gathered on the ground. By relying solely on cellphone calls and other intercepts, chances are increased that a drone strike could merely target a tribesmen who once called an al-Qaida figure, rather than a militant, he said.
“The U.S. is firing missiles into a country, if not blindly, maybe just one-eyed.” he added.