US Acknowledges Ground Ops, Over 120 Airstrikes in Yemen This Year

FILE -- This image made from video shows a radar site after a U.S. airstrike in Hodeida, Yemen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.  (AP Photo via AP video)
FILE -- This image made from video shows a radar site after a U.S. airstrike in Hodeida, Yemen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (AP Photo via AP video)

The U.S. for the first time has acknowledged conducting "multiple ground operations" along with airstrikes at a stepped-up rate of more than two per week in Yemen this year against offshoots of al-Qaida and ISIS.

In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Central Command did not give any details on when and where the ground attacks were carried out in Yemen, but said that more than 120 airstrikes in 2017 have targeted al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the relatively new group known as ISIS-Yemen, of ISIS-Y.

The more than five-fold increase in airstrikes in Yemen this year, compared to the 21 in 2016, was in line with President Donald Trump's directives to pursue terror groups aggressively, said Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a CentCom spokesman.

Trump "has made it abundantly clear" that AQAP and ISIS-Y sites and facilitators should be targeted, Brown said.

"AQAP is one of the terrorist groups most committed to, and capable of, conducting attacks in America, as assessed by the intelligence and defense communities, while intelligence estimates indicate that ISIS-Y has doubled in size over the past year," CentCom said.

CentCom noted a series of 10 airstrikes in November in the Yemeni governates al-Bayda and Marib, including a strike on Mujahid al-Adani, an AQAP leader, who was killed Nov. 20 in al-Bayda.

Al-Adani, also known as Mohammad Shukri, was a senior leader responsible for planning and conducting terrorist attacks against Yemeni, coalition and tribal security forces, CentCom said.

On Oct. 16, a series of airstrikes against two ISIS-Y training camps in al-Bayda killed more than 50 ISIS-Y combatants, disrupting the organization's attempts to recruit and train new fighters, CentCom said.

"The removal of key facilitators in this region will interrupt AQAP's freedom of movement and likely force the group into a reactionary posture, limiting their ability to challenge Yemeni Security Forces and partnered advances," Lt. Col. Brown said.

"U.S. forces also expanded counterterrorism operations in October to encompass both AQAP and ISIS. This parallel targeting effort is required to prevent ISIS-Y from filling the vacuum left by a diminished AQAP footprint or influence in the region," he said.

The CentCom statement did not go beyond stating that "multiple ground operations" took place in Yemen following a well-known raid in January shortly after Trump took office.

In the first offensive operation personally approved by Trump, a Jan. 28 raid in Yemen resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, the wounding of several other service members and the destruction of an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Trump and White House officials at the time stressed that valuable intelligence was recovered in the raid on an AQAP stronghold.

In that raid, Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Illinois, became the first combat death of Trump's presidency.

The stepped-up airstrikes against AQAP and ISIS-Y were occurring during the civil war in Yemen pitting tribal Houthi rebels backed by Iran against the remnants of government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The U.S. has been providing intelligence and aerial refueling to the Saudis. Last week, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley used the charred remnants of a ballistic missile with Iranian markings as a backdrop to call on Iran to stop supporting the Houthis.

The U.S. has also called on the Saudis to ease a blockade to allow food and humanitarian aid to enter Yemen, where UN officials have warned of a spreading famine.

The White House said Wednesday that Trump had called Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on the shootdown Tuesday of a ballistic missile allegedly fired by the Houthis and aimed at the king's al-Yamamah palace.

The attack was "enabled by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," the White House said in a statement.

"The leaders discussed the importance of engaging the United Nations to hold Iran accountable for its repeated violations of international law and agreed on the importance of re-invigorating a political process to end the war in Yemen," the statement said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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