By FT reporter in Sana’a
May 5 2011
An explosion in Yemen’s restive and largely ungoverned south killed two mid-level al-Qaeda leaders early on Thursday, according to the Yemeni defence ministry.
The dawn attack, which local witnesses described as a missile strike from an unmanned drone, killed the two Yemeni brothers, Abdullah and Musaad Mubarak al-Harad, as their vehicle was en route between two rural towns in the province of Shabwa.
Locals denied that the individuals were members of al-Qaeda.
Political analysts believe the incident has all the hallmarks of an airstrike by the United States, which had launched similar attacks in the area, including a notorious botched missile strike on December 17 2009 in the neighbouring province of Abyan, which claimed the lives of dozens of women and children.
“Given how the Yemeni military is concerned with protecting the presidency, there has been little action from their part against al-Qaeda recently,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. “Most signs point to it being a US strike.”
Yemen is home to the potent and active al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a franchise of the global terrorist organisation which has been implicated in failed attempts to down international aircraft and assassinate a prominent Saudi official. One of its most charismatic leaders, American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has also been successful in encouraging American citizens to carry out attacks.
If it was a US attack, it is not clear if it was linked to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, earlier this week.
The impoverished south Arabian nation has been engulfed in the massive unrest sweeping the region in recent months, as a determined protest movement has sought to unseat the country’s president of 32 years.
When the country’s military split in March, with some siding with the demonstrators, many loyal government units were withdrawn to Sana’a, the capital, from already sparsely-governed tribal areas in which al-Qaeda cells are thought to operate.
US airstrikes have ceased since May 2010, when a US operation accidentally killed a prominent government ally and tribal sheikh in Yemen’s oil-rich east, which almost resulted in a massive rebellion by his disgruntled followers.
“The US likely wants to strike while the iron is hot, after bin Laden’s death,” added Mr Johnsen, “but it needs to be very careful not to exacerbate the situation, which is now more volatile than ever.”