WASHINGTON — Prompted in part by a recent video that showed Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen openly taunting the United States, the CIA launched lethal drone strikes over the last three days that marked a sharp acceleration of the Obama administration's shadow war against the terrorist group.
Yemeni officials, who said their counter-terrorism forces carried out ground raids in conjunction with the drone strikes, said about 55 militants, including some foreigners, and at least three civilians were killed.
U.S. officials said Monday that they have no evidence that the attacks on alleged training camps and a convoy of trucks eliminated fugitive bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, the top American target in Yemen; or Nasser Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch and its second-ranking leader.
U.S. officials linked the three airstrikes to a video that appeared on a militant website March 29. It showed Wuhayshi exhorting dozens of apparent followers of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at an open-air gathering in southern Yemen's Abyan province, the area targeted by two of the drone strikes.
In a speech to the group, Wuhaysi made clear that he was targeting the United States, saying, "We must eliminate the cross.... The bearer of the cross is America!"
"That video was alarming to people," a former senior U.S. diplomat said Monday. "The visuals were a bit more than people wanted to see promoted in terms of their ability to gather the faithful and put it all up on YouTube and thumb their nose" at the Yemeni government.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment Monday, referring questions to Yemeni officials, whose accounts were silent on the American role.
The CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command have launched drone attacks in Yemen. But the command was ordered to halt its drone strikes after Yemen's government complained that one attack hit a wedding party in December and killed a dozen civilians.
The Yemen Embassy in Washington said the country's U.S.-trained counter-terrorism unit had executed a successful raid Sunday night that targeted Al Qaeda operatives on a road in Shabwa, a restive province once held by the militants.
"The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place," President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi said, according to the embassy statement.
U.S. analysts said the flurry of attacks was a reflection of the resilience of Yemen's Al Qaeda affiliate and the weakness of Hadi's government.
The Obama administration has "very few options," the former diplomat said. "The Hadi government is fundamentally weak and has not been able to expand its authority in any meaningful way in these [tribal] areas."
The Yemeni raid Sunday came after three airstrikes that destroyed a training camp of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Wadi Al Khayyalah, a remote area in Abyan, the embassy said.
That raid killed two dozen militants, Yemeni officials said, including Saudis who had fought in the civil war in Syria.
On Saturday and Sunday, there were "multiple strikes targeting vehicles and militants in the provinces of Abyan, Shabwa and Al Bayda, killing a number of AQAP combatants, recruiters and trainers," the Yemeni statement said.
A presumed CIA drone strike early Saturday targeted a vehicle in Al Bayda, killing 10 alleged militants and wounding one.
"Intelligence confirmed that the militants received training in an AQAP camp and were planning to launch attacks on vital installations," the embassy said. "Regrettably, three civilians were also killed during the attack and five were injured when their pickup truck unexpectedly appeared next to the targeted vehicle."