A series of three U.S. drone strikes killed at least 11 people it said were al-Qaeda militants Thursday, a Yemeni military official said, part of a spate of attacks by the U.S. in the last month, and a day after Yemen announced it had foiled an al-Qaeda plot.
Local security officials told CNN that only four of the dead in the first strike had links to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – two were civilians. This was the second time civilian casualties were reported in the last six strikes.
Yemen's Tawakkol Karman, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, condemned the attacks. "The killing conducted by unmanned planes in Yemen is outside the law and worse than the terrorist activities of individuals and groups," CNN reported her as saying. She added that the strikes are "degrading" to Yemenis and are a violation of their human rights.
The uptick in drone strikes signals that the Obama administration is stepping up its efforts to target Yemen's al-Qaeda offshoot -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- amid fears of attacks after the interception of a message between its leader and the global leader of al-Qaeda.
Since July 27, drone attacks have killed 31 suspected militants, according to an Associated Press count provided by Yemeni security officials.
The high alert in Yemen came after authorities revealed an al-Qaeda plot to target foreign embassies and international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
The U.S. and Britain evacuated diplomatic staff this week after learning of a threatened attack, prompted Washington to temporarily close 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not confirm individual strikes or release information on how many have been carried out.
Yemeni authorities said Wednesday they uncovered an al-Qaeda plot to target foreign embassies in Sanaa and international shipping in the Red Sea.
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat have told the AP that the embassy closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major attack.
The discovery of the al-Qaeda plot prompted the Defense Ministry to step up security around the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Officials banned speedboats and fishing vessels from the area, and military forces have been ordered to shoot to kill anybody who arouses suspicion or refuses to identify themselves.
Yemeni troops have stepped up security across Sanaa, with multiple checkpoints set up and tanks and other military vehicles guarding vital institutions. The army has surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in the capital, as well as the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
The terror network's Yemeni offshoot has been bolstering its operations in Yemen more than a decade after key Saudi operatives fled here following a major crackdown in their homeland.
The al-Qaeda group overran entire towns and villages in Yemen in 2011, taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Abdul Ghani Iryani, a political analyst, believes that Saleh in some instances allowed miltants to take control. "Saleh himself actually handed over [the town of] Zinjibar to these militants," he told The Nation. "He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists."
Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was eventually able to regain control of the southern region, but al-Qaeda militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces.
Al Jazeera and wire services