Air attacks and mortar fire killed 20 Al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen on Thursday, including eight who died in US drone strikes, officials and tribal sources said.
The latest attacks follow a deadly raid on Sunday that killed a top Al-Qaeda leader wanted by the United States, and amid reports a Saudi mole had infiltrated the network and supplied information to the CIA.
The drone strikes took place around midnight (2100 GMT Wednesday) in the town of Jaar, an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Abyan province, a source in the town said.
“We heard three explosions rock the town,” the source said, adding that a “US drone” carried out the strikes on a residence where the jihadists had been meeting in the dead of night.
“Eight militants were killed and their bodies were left in pieces,” the source told AFP, as witnesses said parts of the two-storey building were completely destroyed.
No other houses were affected in what appeared to be surgical strikes based on precise information.
Another tribal source said that among the militants killed was one going by the name of “Jallad,” who had been in charge of armaments for Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the defence ministry’s news website 26sep.net reported that 10 other Al-Qaeda militants were killed on Thursday in a heavy bombardment of their strongholds in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
And just west of Zinjibar, two other Al-Qaeda suspects, including a local chief named as Khaldun al-Sayyed, were killed in an air strike, a pro-government militia official said.
The official could not however say if that raid on the town of Shaqra was carried out by a US drone.
The latest air strikes came after Yemeni Al-Qaeda leader Fahd al-Quso, who was wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, was killed in an air strike in eastern Yemen on Sunday.
Quso’s name figured on an FBI list of most wanted terrorists, along with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
US media reported that a Saudi spy, reportedly a “mole” or “double agent,” spent weeks with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and garnered sensitive information that allowed the CIA to launch the drone strike against Quso.
The reports said that the “mole” had been ordered by AQAP to blow up a US-bound airliner.
A senior US official told the New York Times that the bomb for the would-be Al-Qaeda attack was sewn into “custom fit” underwear that would have been difficult to detect even in a pat-down at an airport.
ABC News reported that the latest plot by AQAP was thwarted by a spy who infiltrated the group and took the explosive to Saudi Arabia.
Several military officials in Sanaa told AFP that this week’s air strikes were launched by US aircraft and coordinated by Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as well as by military and intelligence leaders.
On April 22, the financier of Yemen’s Al-Qaeda branch — Mohammed Said al-Omda, also known as Abu Gharib Taizi — was killed in an air strike. Witnesses said a US drone carried out the attack in northeast Yemen.
Omda was considered AQAP’s number four.
A week before that, another air strike, which a security official said was conducted by a US drone, targeted a moving vehicle carrying Al-Qaeda operatives in the province of Bayda, some 210 kilometres (130 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa, killing three leaders.
Among them was a local AQAP commander, Abu Hamza al-Sabri, referred to as the “Emir (prince) of Bayda.”
Tribal sources in areas under Al-Qaeda control said on Thursday that AQAP has been heavily infiltrated by intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even the United States.
The infiltration had occurred because AQAP has been randomly recruiting hundreds of unemployed youths over the past few months, they told AFP.
The jihadists, who have named themselves the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), control parts of southern and eastern Yemen where Sanaa’s authority is weak.
Hadi, who succeeded veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh after he stepped down following a year of protests, has vowed since his election in February to intensify the war against Al-Qaeda.