TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Ramps Up Operations in Yemen
March 3, 2017

The U.S. Ramps Up Operations in Yemen


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On March 2, the U.S. conducted 25 manned and unmanned airstrikes in Yemen targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

• The U.S. is significantly ramping up military operations in the war-torn country, declaring some parts an ‘area of active hostility.’

• The January 29 Special Operations Forces raid in Yemen that left a Navy SEAL and many civilians dead is still being investigated.

• As in Syria, the U.S. has been forced to conduct counterterrorism operations in Yemen in the middle of a bitter civil and proxy war.


The pace of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen is becoming more frequent and substantial. The increase in U.S. strikes in Yemen represents a tacit acknowledgement of how the ongoing civil and proxy war in the country—in which the U.S. is backing the Saudi-led coalition—has helped terror groups grow in the chaos. While the Saudi-led air and ground campaign has focused on removing the Houthis from power—an objective driven by the bitter tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran—the U.S. has become increasingly worried that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was already a top terror threat for the U.S., has thrived during the conflict.

The situation in Yemen is similar to the complex and often contradictory situation that the U.S. faces in Syria, where it has focused on fighting one war—a war against the so-called Islamic State—while most other combatants and their foreign supporters have focused on fighting each other. Conducting counterterrorism operations in the midst of a civil war requires combat within combat—an exceedingly difficult and dangerous task. The increase in U.S. operations in Yemen indicates the serious concern in Washington over the threat posed by AQAP.

On March 2, the U.S. conducted the largest series of airstrikes in years against AQAP targets in Yemen. The U.S. military carried out 25 airstrikes, both manned and unmanned, against ‘militants, equipment, and infrastructure.’ While there are no official battle damage estimates, The Washington Post reported local Yemeni media had reports that ‘hundreds’ of militants had been killed. It is unclear if any civilians were killed in the strikes, but the last two years have seen a terrible toll of civilians killed in airstrikes.

The January 29 U.S. raid in Yemen that killed Chief Special Warfare Officer William “Ryan” Owens and numerous innocent civilians demonstrated how difficult it is to conduct counterterrorism raids in places where a local liaison—the heart of U.S. counterterrorism efforts—is either missing or consumed in another fight. The target area was evidently much more heavily defended than anticipated—and the Navy SEALS anticipate resistance in every raid and plan accordingly. As such, the raid has become the subject of controversy in the U.S., and investigations into the circumstances surrounding the raid are likely.

It is highly likely there will be more ground assaults involving U.S. Special Operations Forces in Yemen—both unilaterally and alongside forces from the United Arab Emirates, which has a well-regarded special operations capability and a sizable presence in Yemen. AQAP has long and deep ties in several regions of the country. The only straightforward aspect of the ongoing conflict in Yemen is that the war is destroying the already weakened country, and indiscriminate bombing and war-exacerbating famine is taking a heavy toll on civilians. As in Syria, the U.S. will have to focus on the terror threat emanating from Yemen for years, even after any ostensible cessation of hostilities.


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