The first U.S. drone strike in Yemen since the
start of the year killed three suspected al-Qaida fighters on Monday,
signaling Washington's determination to keep targeting the global
terror network's most lethal branch despite the resignation of the
Yemeni president, a top U.S. ally, in the face of a Shiite rebel
Tribal and security officials in the central province of Marib said a
missile hit a vehicle carrying three people near the border with
neighboring Shabwa province, an al-Qaida stronghold. The officials
spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to
speak to media.
The drone strike, the first in 2015, was also the first since Shiite
rebels known as Houthis last week placed embattled President Abed
Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet under house arrest following days
of gunbattles in an attempt to force them to make political
concessions. After reaching a tentative deal with the Houthis, the
president and his government resigned in an effort to thwart rebel
attempts to force more compromises.
The Houthis, who claim to only want an equal share of power, had
seized the capital of Sanaa and its central province in September and
at least eight other provinces, after descending from their northern
Critics say the Shiite Houthi rebels want to retain Hadi as president
in name only, while keeping an iron grip on power. They also accuse
the Houthis of being a proxy of Iran, an allegation the rebels deny.
The prospect of a leaderless Yemen has raised concerns about
Washington's ability to continue targeting Al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known. The group claimed the
recent attack on a French satirical weekly and has mounted several
failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.
The Houthis are staunch opponents of al-Qaida but in their push into
Sunni-dominated areas, they risk driving locals into the arms of
al-Qaida insurgents and turning their power struggle into sectarian
warfare. The Houthis are Zaydis, a Shiite minority that makes up
about a third of Yemen's population.
Monday's strike came a day after President Barack Obama defended his
counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, saying his approach "is not neat
and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have." He ruled
out deploying U.S. forces there.
"The alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity,
which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems
than it would potentially solve," Obama said during a joint media
appearance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Obama said that while he was concerned about the fragility of Yemen's
central government, the country "has never been a perfect democracy
or an island of stability."
Some U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Obama's broader anti-terror
strategy. Republican Senator John McCain told CBS' "Face the Nation"
that more special operations forces may be need in countries battling
"We need more boots on the ground," said McCain, who is also the
chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I know that's a tough thing to say, and a tough thing for Americans
to swallow. But it doesn't mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward
air controllers. It means special forces, it means intelligence, and
it means other capabilities," McCain added.
Led by Osama bin Laden's top aide Nasser al-Wahishi, al-Qaida has
posed the greatest danger to Western interests, especially the United
States. After several unsuccessful operations on U.S. soil, the group
claimed responsibility for this month's bloody rampage at the office
of a French satirical newspaper that left 12 dead, to avenge cartoons
depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Last year, at least 23 U.S. drone strikes killed 138 al-Qaida
militants as well as some civilians, according to the Long War
Journal, which tracks militant groups. U.S. officials rarely comment
on the covert drone program. However, the number of strikes is much
smaller compared to 2012 when the U.S. carried out 41 airstrikes that
killed some 190 militants in Yemen.
The airstrikes' campaign has had its pitfalls, with dozens of
civilians killed or badly wounded in the crossfire, feeding
anti-American sentiment among large sectors of Yemenis and prompting
disgruntled tribesmen to become easy recruits to al-Qaida.
In the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the Houthis showed no tendency of
de-escalating the political crisis, sending militiamen armed with
knives and batons to attack and detain demonstrators who were
protesting on Monday against their power grab.
The militiamen dispersed those who tried to converge on Sanaa's
Change Square- the epicenter of Yemen's 2011 popular uprising that
led to the ouster of Hadi's predecessor, longtime autocrat Ali
Abdullah Saleh. Saleh is believed to be a strong backer of Houthis.
A well-known activist, Adel Shamsan, said in an audio recording
circulated by Yemeni activists on Twitter that the Houthis brought
"thugs" who chased away the protesters, accusing them of being
Shamsan said he was briefly held by the militiamen before escaping.