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Free Fire | | Counterterrorism, Middle East

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On Tuesday, March 22, 2016, a U.S. airstrike targeting an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) training camp reportedly killed dozens of the groups fighters. The Pentagon has been cautious to reveal the exact location of the camp, but Yemeni security forces have mentioned the camp was situated near AQAP’s stronghold in Mukalla.

The U.S. looks to be instituting a new tactic of targeting large training camps of terrorist organizations. The U.S. in the past have been known to use targeted killings that resulted in the deaths of few terrorists, but these strikes are inflicting wider damage on our enemies.

In February the U.S. targeted an Islamic State (IS) camp in Libya, near the Tunisian border, that killed upwards of 40 IS fighters and Noureddine Chouchane, the organizer of two major attacks in Tunisia. Earlier this month the U.S. targeted an Al Shabaab graduation ceremony in Somalia, which reportedly killed 150 Al Shabaab fighters. In both of these strikes training camps were the primary targets, and this suggests a new effort by the U.S. to attack terrorist organizations’ ability to fight while also targeting their leadership.


The same day the U.S. struck the IS camp in Libya, February 19, 2016, the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) struck an Al Shabaab training camp killing Al Shabaab’s head of intelligence. It appears that the U.S. is not the only ones to begin this new tactic. It is likely that more nations will attempt to use this style of strike to inflict the most possible damage on their targets as groups like IS, AQAP, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) make significant gains in their regions.

According to the Long War Journal database, the U.S. has launched roughly 135 airstrikes in Yemen since 2002, and has launched 5 this year alone. A U.S. drone strike targeted and killed Jalal Baleedi, an AQAP senior field commander, earlier this year, but this did little to slow down AQAP’s movement in the country. Shortly after Baleedi’s death AQAP was able to take the town of Ahwar in Southern Yemen, further increasing their area of control over Southern Yemen.

AQAP has been able to take significant territory in Yemen due to the fighting between Houthi rebels and forces supporting the Yemeni government. Since the Houthis pushed out the Yemeni government, the Southern and Western portions of the country have been ungoverned territory and easily captured by groups like AQAP and IS.

The U.S. has attempted to do its part to combat AQAP while a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States focuses on the Houthi rebels.

  • In April of 2015, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, AQAP’s top ideological leader and mufti, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
  • That same month, a U.S. drone strike killed Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a senior AQAP leader and AQ’s global deputy manager.
  • In June 2015, the U.S. was able to target and kill AQAP leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, also served as AQ’s second in command.

All of these strikes targeted major players in AQAP’s ranks, but they did little to stop the group from claiming important territory within Yemen. This trend was not unique to Yemen, however. In Somalia, the U.S. successfully targeted many high ranking officers within Al Shabaab, yet this did little to hinder the groups gains in the country.

While it is still too early to identify if this new strategy will have any significant impact against terrorist organizations, it is encouraging to see the U.S. and its allies move in a new direction. Targeting membership in depth may have a major effect on a group’s morale, and it will certainly force these organizations to rethink its strategies. It would be wise for the U.S. and other allied nations to get the most out of this new strategy before these organizations change their tactics.

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