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Backlash feared after weekend strikes in Yemen

Attacks on police officers in Sanaa following this weekend's unprecedented US, Yemeni attacks reportedly on militants raise questions about potential domestic blowback
Yemeni soldiers stand guard as a police van which was carrying suspected al-Qaeda militants, is parked outside the state security court in the capital Sanaa on 22 April (AFP)

As Yemeni officials reportedly began DNA tests to ascertain the identities of those killed in this weekend's unprecedented attacks, the death of a Yemeni intelligence officer on Tuesday raised questions about the potential for militant and civilian backlash against the raids.  

The Yemeni intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Mohamed al-Eriej, died after succumbing to serious injuries sustained during an armed attack one day earlier in Sanaa that left another officer dead, a security source said.

On Monday, militants on a motorcycle opened fire on al-Eriej and Lt. Col. Abdel-Rahman al-Nagdi, badly injuring the former and killing the latter, Anadolu Agency reported.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Numerous police and army facilities have been attacked in Yemen in recent months, leaving hundreds of security personnel dead and injured.

Reports vary but it is believed that between 55 and 68 people were killed in the massive air force and drone attacks over the weekend which reportedly targeted Al-Qaeda militants. Yemen observers on Tuesday questioned whether the attacks are a short-term and ineffective solution to the larger socio-economic challenges facing the country and could cause long-term retaliations. 

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"The US can't simply kill its way out of the terrorism threat," said Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on terrorism and counter-terrorism, told Reuters.

"The US and other concerned nations should address all the drivers of terrorism including poverty, illiteracy, political marginalization and lack of opportunity for young people."

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, told Reuters that civlian deaths as a result of the drone strikes could result in blowback for the US and Yemeni government. "[T]he lack of on-the-ground military presence means a lack of localised intelligence, which by extension means strikes have inevitably struck civilian targets on occasion. In a deeply tribal and conservative society, such incidents are a recipe for disaster," he said.

The London’s Times reported on Tuesday that the US had also launched a ground operation in the country, adding that tests were underway on bodies recovered from an ambush to determine if Ibrahim al-Asiri, a suspected chief bomb-maker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was among the victims.

Asiri was reportedly the mastermind of the so-called “underwear bomb plot” which saw a young Nigerian man attempt to detonate a device on an aircraft over the US on Christmas Day 2009.

US officials have denied that Asiri or Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the AQAP leader, were the intended intended targets in the strikes. 

The weekend's attacks come after the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi pledged in a rare video to fight Western "crusaders" everywhere, apparently referring to the United States and other countries which have intervened in Muslim countries, according to Yemeni officials.

"We will continue to raise the banner of Islam in the Arabia Peninsula and our war against the crusaders will continue everywhere in the world," he said in the video posted online last month.

Yet despite the timing following the video, the rationale behind the massive attacks and their exact targets remained unclear on Tuesday.

"It could be that the Obama administration is responding to specific intelligence of a resurgence in AQAP in Yemen," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for Kuwait at Rice University. "Or [the US] is acting to assuage concerns among key allies in the Gulf about US commitments to regional security, or a combination of both."

As Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge:Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia, tweeted on Monday, it is also unclear who exactly was killed, despite Yemeni official's claims.

The weekend attacks follow a major uptick in covert US operations inside Yemen during the first quarter of 2014, according to a report by the MEE's Patrick Galey on Monday. If confirmed, the more than 14 possible drone strikes during the three month period would represent the highest concentration of drone activity in Yemen since May 2012.

The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen, but US officials rarely acknowledge the covert programme making the extent of damage and full rationale of each strike hard to know. Local and international media - often citing security and military sources - report that the victims are suspected members of AQAP and, by implication, fair game for drone assassination, Galey wrote in his report.

On Monday, however, a US federal appeals panel ordered the release of portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who had joined Al Qaeda and died in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen, The New York Times reported.

The government waived its right to keep the analysis secret following several public statements by US administration officials and the release of a Justice Department analysis explaining why the targeted killings were legal, a three-judge panel ruled, according to the New York Times.

Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, meanwhile, awarded Yemen's counter-terrorism unit the medal of "bravery" for its "successful raid last night," the government said in a statement.

"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 at any time and place," said Hadi.

Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, faced sharp domestic criticism for his collaboration with the US on drone strikes revealed in diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 by WikiLeaks

Tweeting on an apparent attack on Herakis - as members of Yemen's Southern Separatist Movement are known - Iona Craig, The Times correspondent in Yemen, raised questions about whether the weekend's attacks might pose problems for Hadi and his government.

Hadi has defended the use of drones, despite criticism from rights groups concerned about civilian causualities. The United States has defended its use of drones against Al-Qaeda, saying they allow it to target jihadists without sending soldiers into lawless areas where local authorities have little or no control. 

Rights groups have criticised the drone programme in Yemen and other countries, and repeatedly urged the US administration to investiate strikes in which civilians have been killed.

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