A U.S. air strike has killed the media chief for al-Qaida's Yemeni branch along with six other militants, Yemen's government and security officials said Saturday, in the second high-profile American missile attack in as many weeks to target the terror group.
The strike, which follows the killing of prominent U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a similar American missile attack late last month, points to Washington's growing use of drones to hit al-Qaida militants in Yemen. The targeted attacks appear to be part of a determined effort to stamp out the threat from the group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have said is the terror network's most active and most dangerous branch.
The slain media chief, identified as Egyptian-born Ibrahim al-Bana, was killed along with six other militants in the southeastern province of Shabwa on Friday night, Yemen's Defense Ministry said in a statement released Saturday. Security officials said an American drone carried out the attack, which was one of five overnight strikes that targeted suspected al-Qaida positions in Shabwa and the neighboring province of Abyan in Yemen's largely lawless south.
Officials and tribal elders in the area said the strike followed a meeting of al-Qaida militants in a house in Azan, a district in Shabwa. A missile hit the house after the militants had already left, but a second strike targeted two sport utility vehicles in which the seven were traveling after the meeting.
The two vehicles were completely destroyed and the men's bodies were charred, said the officials and the tribal elders speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. It was not clear whether other participants in the meeting were targeted in separate strikes.
Friday's missile attack came two weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed al-Awlaki, a gifted Muslim preacher and savvy Internet operator who became a powerful al-Qaida tool for recruiting in the West. Killed with him was Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who was a propagandist for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil roiling Yemen, as embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been struggling to stay in power in the face of eight months of massive street protests demanding his ouster and the defection to the opposition of key aides and military commanders.
Militants linked to AQAP have taken over several cities in the south, raising fears that they can establish a permanent stronghold in this strategically located nation. Yemen is in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and the oil-producing nations of the Gulf. It also overlooks strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal.
In a separate development, the security officials said suspected al-Qaida militants have bombed a key, underground gas pipeline that extends from the Balhaf area in Shabwa to an export terminal on the Arabian Sea. The Friday night attack started a massive fire, with columns of flames lighting the nigh sky and seen from miles away.