A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed three Al-Qaeda fighters on Monday, signaling Washington's determination to keep targeting the global terror network's most lethal branch despite the resignation of the Yemeni president, a top U.S. ally, in the face of a Shia rebel power grab.
Yemeni tribal and security officials in the central province of Marib said a missile hit a vehicle carrying three men near the boundary with neighboring Shabwa province, an Al-Qaeda stronghold.
An Al-Qaeda member said that one of the three slain fighters was Saudi while the other two were Yemenis. Both Yemeni officials and the Al-Qaeda member spoke on condition of anonymity.
The drone strike, the first in 2015, was also the first since Shia Houthis rebels last week placed embattled Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet under house arrest following days of gun battles in an attempt to force them to make political concessions. After reaching a tentative deal with the Houthis, the president and his government resigned in an effort to thwart rebel attempts to force more compromises.
The Houthis, who claim to only want an equal share of power, had seized the capital of Sanaa and its central province in September, and at least eight other provinces, after descending from their northern stronghold.
Critics say the Houthi rebels want to retain Hadi as president in name only, while keeping an iron grip on power. They also accuse the Houthis of being a proxy of Iran, an allegation the rebels deny.
The prospect of a leaderless Yemen has raised concerns about Washington's ability to continue targeting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemeni branch is known. The group claimed responsibility for the recent attack — that left 12 dead — on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The United States, meanwhile, is closing its embassy in Yemen to the public until further notice amid political turmoil, the embassy said in a statement on Monday.
The Houthis are staunch opponents of Al-Qaeda but in their push into Sunni-dominated areas, they risk driving locals into the arms of Al-Qaeda insurgents and turning their power struggle into sectarian warfare. The Houthis are Zaydis, a Shia minority that makes up about a third of Yemen's population.
Monday's strike came a day after President Barack Obama defended his counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, saying his approach "is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have." He ruled out deploying U.S. forces there.
"The alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve," Obama said during a joint media appearance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Obama said that while he was concerned about the fragility of Yemen's central government, the country "has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability."
In September, as Houthis were on the march to take Sanaa, Obama cited Yemen as a counterterrorism success story as he outlined his strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which involves targeted U.S. strikes against militants with the cooperation of a friendly ground force. Obama called it an approach "that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years."
Some U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about Obama's broader anti-terror strategy. Republican Senator John McCain told CBS' "Face the Nation" that more special operations forces may be need in countries battling extremists.
"We need more boots on the ground," said McCain, who is also the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I know that's a tough thing to say, and a tough thing for Americans to swallow. But it doesn't mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means special forces, it means intelligence, and it means other capabilities."
Led by Osama bin Laden's top aide Nasser al-Wahishi, AQAP has posed the greatest danger to Western interests, especially the United States.
Last year, at least 23 U.S. drone strikes killed 138 suspected AQAP members as well as some civilians, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks militant groups. U.S. officials rarely comment on the covert drone program. However, the number of strikes is much smaller compared to 2012 when the U.S. carried out 41 airstrikes that killed some 190 militants in Yemen.
The airstrikes' campaign has had its pitfalls, with dozens of civilians killed or badly wounded in the crossfire, feeding anti-American sentiment among large sectors of Yemenis and prompting disgruntled tribesmen to become easy recruits to AQAP.
In Sanaa on Monday the Houthis showed no tendency of de-escalating the political crisis, sending militiamen armed with knives and batons to attack and detain demonstrators who were protesting against their power grab.
The militiamen dispersed those who tried to converge on Sanaa's Change Square — the epicenter of Yemen's 2011 popular uprising that led to the ouster of Hadi's predecessor, longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh is believed to be a strong backer of Houthis.
A well-known activist, Adel Shamsan, said in an audio recording circulated by Yemeni activists on Twitter that the Houthis brought "thugs" who chased away the protesters, accusing them of being "American agents." Shamsan said he was briefly held by the militiamen before escaping.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press