On Sunday, November 3, 2002, six men, packed into a sedan, rolled east of Yemen’s capital through the sparse desert of Marib province, where they were struck and killed by a hellfire missile sent to meet them from a U.S. Predator drone. The U.S. targeted killing program was in its infancy—only one other strike had reportedly ever been conducted—and this was a precedent-setting success.
The strike targeted and killed Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harithi, who was believed to have devised the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39. The five other passengers, though not the original target, also perished—one of which was an American citizen.
Since that strike, the United States has killed more than 1,000 people in counterterrorism operations in Yemen, yet many of the details of these strikes remain unknown.
New America calculates drone strikes that occur in short succession and in one location as one strike. However, since President Trump took office, the Pentagon reports multiple series of strikes that are not possible to verify individually. By the Pentagon’s estimates, Trump’s counterterrorism strikes exceed what is represented here.
The conduct of American counter-terrorism operations in Yemen has varied over time. For seven years after the United States’ first strike, which was carried out under the Bush administration, the United States refrained from conducting further strikes in Yemen. The U.S. drone program would not commence in Yemen in earnest until 2009, when Barack Obama took office.
Around the time of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, dispersed Qaeda militants—pushed out of Saudi Arabia by its relatively successful counterterrorism campaign—and Yemeni militants merged and announced the formation Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
AQAP conducted aggressive operations against local security forces between 2009 and 2010. But at the same time, the group still held ambitions of a global jihad.
In the early afternoon of November 5, 2009, Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist preparing to deploy with his unit, abruptly opened fire on other servicemen at Fort Hood Army Base, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others. “Nidal Hassan [sic] is a hero,” wrote his guide, Anwar al-Awlaki, a popular American terror propagandist who had fled the U.S. in 2002 under suspicion of terror activity.
Awlaki, born and raised in the fertile valley of Las Cruces, New Mexico—where his father was studying agriculture on a Fulbright award— had been on the FBI’s radar for a decade by the time he published his blog post on the Fort Hood shooting. However, his enigmatic connections to three 9/11 hijackers would set the U.S. government on his trail for years to come, apparently fueling his radicalization and prompting him to leave the U.S. for London, and eventually Yemen.
On Christmas day in 2009, the Obama administration thwarted an AQAP-organized airliner attack on the United States that threatened to derail his presidency at the onset. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born graduate student attending school in Europe, had sought out Awlaki and received from him a martyrdom mission: take down a passenger plane over U.S. soil. If not for a defect in the bomb, which was tucked into Abdulmutallab’s undergarments, he would have succeeded.
This near miss precipitated a major escalation in Obama’s counterterrorism campaign in Yemen.
In January 2011, demonstrations broke out in the country, as was occurring at the time in other nations across North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. As the fledgling, but capable, AQAP made territorial gains amidst the chaos, the United States responded by substantially escalating air and drone strikes.
While the tectonic plates of poor governance, tribal cleavages, and Islamic extremism ground together beneath Yemen’s rumbling uprising, AQAP and the Obama administration were entrenched in separate efforts to gain momentum. Osama bin Laden, monitoring the group’s rise in Yemen—the country he deemed “most suitable for jihad”—from his Pakistan hideout, urged the Qaeda-offshoot to focus on filling the gap in governance and winning over the civilian population.
Heeding this admonition, AQAP continued to accumulate territory, administering Sharia law where it raised its flags and providing much-needed services and order to the suffering populations. Digging in their heels, they ensured their longevity and prominence by allying with the tribes, even marrying into them.
But that would be the last bit of advice to AQAP from the central al-Qaeda leader. Finding momentum in his own campaign, Obama approved the Navy SEAL operation to kill Bin Laden, giving him room to turn his attention to a rising threat in Yemen.
Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike by the U.S. government on September 30, 2011. This is the first known case of the American government targeting and killing a citizen since the Civil War. Another American jihadist, Samir Khan, was killed alongside Awlaki, but was not the target of the strike, though he’d risen to prominence in the terror network as the editor and publisher of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Two weeks later, Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in collateral damage from a strike reportedly targeting Egyptian Al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim al-Banna.
Strikes would continue to rise and peak in 2012, but slowly began to de-escalate through 2014.
However, the fall in strikes would not last. In September 2014, Yemen’s Houthi rebels made a strong advance into the country taking the capital of Sana’a. In January 2015, the Houthi rebels sparked a renewed conflict. While many assumed the instability would pose challenges for American counterterrorism operations, the United States began to re-escalate its war in 2015 in part due to renewed AQAP advances, including its seizure of the port city of al Mukalla in April 2015.
When the Obama administration would hand over the ‘drone playbook’ to the incoming administration, counterterrorism activities were already on a precipitous rise in Yemen.
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, inheriting an escalating counterterrorism war in Yemen. As president, he proceeded to further loosen the restraints on conducting airstrikes, drone strikes, and ground raids in the country.
In March 2017, President Trump designated three provinces in Yemen as “areas of active hostilities,” as part of the administration’s efforts to loosen the battlefield restrictions of the Obama-era drone wars, raising the risk of civilian casualties, such as the reported dozens incurred in the first ground raid Trump authorized as president.
In a similar action, the Wall Street Journal reported on March 14, 2017, that President Trump authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to resume its covert drone war more broadly, a permission that Obama limited towards the end of his presidency.
Trump authorized a military operation on January 29, 2017, conducted in the Yakla district of Yemen’s al-Bayda province, targeted several AQAP members, and reportedly killed between 13-14 militants. Three AQAP leaders were killed in the operation: senior leader Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab and his brother Sultan al-Dhahab, both of the infamous Dhahab clan which established influence in Bayda through its relationship to al Qaeda, and Seif al-Nims (also referred to in reports as Saif Alawai al-Jawfi).
The raid was in the planning stages for months under President Obama, but was not executed. Trump's authorization of the raid was costly, resulting in the death of several Yemeni and Saudi civilians, the death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, and injuries to an additional three special operations officers. The devastation of civilian deaths, which included women and children, among them the eight-year-old daughter of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, resulted in the suspension of U.S. commando activities by Yemeni officials, though officials backtracked in days following.
On March 2-6, 2017, the U.S. military conducted a combination of drone and airstrikes, with reported numbers ranging from 25 strikes by Pentagon estimates to as many as 40, according to reports. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis denied local reports that troops were involved in the multi-pronged attack, but acknowledged U.S. forces were deployed to that location during that period.