With a series of airstrikes and a recent ground raid, the U.S. military has intensified a long-running campaign against al-Qaida in Yemen, which is considered more dangerous than the group's parent organization.
The U.S. military has carried out about 30 airstrikes over the past two days in south-central Yemen, according to the Pentagon. The Americans have targeted members of the extremist group, formally known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The concentrated strikes come just a month after a rare U.S. ground raid in the same general area. That Jan. 29 operation in Al Bayda Province did not go smoothly. One Navy SEAL was killed, several other troops were injured and a damaged U.S. aircraft had to be destroyed. Twenty-four Yemeni civilians were also killed, a witness told NPR.
The raid generated a debate about the value of the information on the computers and cellphones recovered from the AQAP compound. A Defense Department official said Friday that the latest airstrikes were not based on intelligence gathered in January. But he did add that the previous raid produced "good information" that provided a fuller picture of a group that is made up largely of local Yemeni tribesmen.
Many details of the airstrikes this week remain sketchy, including the exact targets and the number of casualties.
What is clear is that the Pentagon has decided to ramp up its efforts against AQAP, a group that operates in one of the world's most remote, isolated and dysfunctional countries.
However, many national security officials believe AQAP poses the most serious threat to the U.S. homeland of any terrorist group.
Most al-Qaida groups, including its core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, have been substantially weakened by the U.S. military. But al-Qaida in Yemen is believed to have the ability to make sophisticated bombs that do not contain metal, which would make them difficult to detect if, for example, someone tried to place them on an airliner.
The group has been linked to a number of actual or attempted attacks in the West, including the 2015 shootings in Paris at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The U.S. has carried out selective drone strikes against AQAP for years, but the operations have generally been on a much more limited scale than in the past month.
The Pentagon said Thursday that airstrikes "will degrade the AQAP's ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting."
The military also said it was working in coordination with Yemen's president, Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. However, Hadi's authority is extremely limited. He fled the country two years ago after Houthi rebels took over the capital Sanaa. Hadi has spent most of his time in Saudi Arabia, though loyal army forces continue to fight on his behalf.
The war appears to be largely a stalemate at present, with no faction demonstrating the strength to win an outright military victory. Saudi Arabia has been waging an air campaign in support of Hadi, but that has not significantly changed the trajectory of the war and the Saudis have been blamed for many civilian casualties.
Yemen, meanwhile, is suffering a humanitarian crisis with an estimated 18 million of the country's 27 million people in need of some sort of assistance. The country faces chronic water shortages, and people in the worst affected areas can spend hours a day waiting in line for water. The economy, the health care system, the education system have all broken down.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman contributed to this report.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Yemen, the Trump administration has stepped up military action. The U.S. has been bombing al-Qaida targets there this week. The U.S. effort against al-Qaida is just one of three separate conflicts in Yemen, and the country is also suffering a terrible humanitarian crisis. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to talk more about it. Welcome to the studio, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: What more can you tell us about the scope of these U.S. strikes in Yemen?
MYRE: The U.S. has carried out about 30 bombing strikes in the past two nights. And this is very unusual in Yemen. What we've traditionally seen is the occasional drone strike. And this stepped up activity that we're seeing comes on the heels of a very rare ground raid about a month ago. That ground raid did not go smoothly at all. A U.S. Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed. Several colleagues were injured, and their aircraft had to be destroyed. They did gather some intel, but we're hearing today from Defense officials that that was not what led to the most recent airstrikes that we've seen.
CORNISH: Do we know what the U.S. goal is here?
MYRE: I think specifically what they fear from al-Qaida in Yemen is the ability to make very sophisticated bombs - bombs that don't have metal in them and could be used to carry out an attack on an airliner. So it's a specific skill that they associate with al-Qaida in Yemen.
CORNISH: Now, it's not just the U.S. and al-Qaida here. There are many other players in the conflict in Yemen. Can you give us a sense of what's going on on the ground?
MYRE: Sure. Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging this major battle for supremacy throughout the Middle East. And Yemen is one of their main battlegrounds. For the Saudis, Yemen is a country on their southern border. They don't want this chaos. And for the last two years, they've been conducting air strikes with a lot of U.S. assistance. It has not gone well. It hasn't changed the trajectory of the war in any significant way. And the Saudis are being blamed for a lot of civilian casualties, so not a real success from their point of view. On the Iranian side, they're aligned with the Houthi rebels - they're fellow Shiite Muslims. And it's hard to get an exact fix on how much Iran is or isn't doing in Yemen. But it's clearly a way for them to be poking at Saudi Arabia, so it's part of this bigger proxy battle.
CORNISH: Right. Proxy because Yemen has its own civil war going on.
MYRE: That's right. And it's been an absolute disaster for the country. This is a very poor country. And now you have this multi-sided civil war. We won't get into all the players, but I'll just mention two. One I've already noted, the Houthi rebels - they took over the capital two years ago, and they still control it in other parts of the country. But they're not a functioning government in any real sense of the word. And they're fighting against primarily the president's troops. And there's the president Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, but he's been out of the country for two years. He's got a loyal army fighters still waging war on his behalf. But he's been mostly in Saudi Arabia. So you have this inconclusive war that drags on with many different actors.
CORNISH: Is it something that can be compared to what is happening in Syria?
MYRE: It is a fair analogy. In both these countries, the Arab uprisings of 2011 is where all this trouble began. You've had multi-sided civil wars, a downward spiral into complete chaos in both countries. The U.S. is carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, against al-Qaida in Yemen and, again, just a humanitarian catastrophe in both places.
CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks so much.
MYRE: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.