The strikes are the first ones to target the Yemen-based terror group since a deadly January raid
At least one strike on Thursday targeted a so-called "high value" al Qaeda member
The United States conducted a second round of airstrikes against an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen overnight, the Pentagon said Friday, bringing the number of strikes against the terrorist group to more than 30 in the last 48 hours.
“US forces conducted additional precision strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Department of Defense spokesman, told CNN.
The strikes were intended to “maintain pressure against the terrorists’ network and infrastructure in the region,” Baldanza added.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday: “Make no mistake, while we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands. It is a deadly terrorist organization that has proven itself to be very effective in targeting and killing Americans.”
“We are working to stop them from that,” Davis said, adding that the strikes were “part of a larger plan” aimed at disrupting the terrorist group.
On Thursday, the US launched 20 airstrikes against the group. No civilian casualties were reported from either of the two strikes, US officials told CNN.
Both day’s actions struck multiple locations and targeted militants, equipment, infrastructure, heavy weapons systems and fighting positions in the Abyan, Shabwa and Baydha regions of Yemen.
Two US officials told CNN that manned and unmanned aircraft were used and that the military assesses that al Qaeda personnel were killed.
At least one strike on Thursday targeted a so-called “high value” al Qaeda member, but it remains unclear whether the US will announce the name of the person and whether officials believe he was killed in the operation.
“The strikes were conducted in partnership with the government of Yemen,” Davis said in a statement Thursday.
Davis added that they aimed to degrade the terror group’s “ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting.”
The strikes are the first ones to target the Yemen-based terror group since the deadly January raid in Baydha that left Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens dead and several other service members wounded. The mission also cost several civilians their lives and resulted in the loss of a US aircraft.
A US defense official told CNN, however, that the latest strikes had been planned for some time and were not the result of intelligence the US obtained from the January operation, which yielded multiple terabytes of data gathered from the AQAP site.
Sources have told CNN that important intelligence on a variety of areas was obtained in the January ground raid, including information pertaining to locations of additional safe havens, explosives manufacturing, training and targets.
A US official tells CNN “the raid led to intelligence which will lead to future operations.”
But the raid has faced questions from lawmakers about its utility and execution, with several Trump critics questioning the value of the intelligence, whether the right calculation about the raid’s risks was made and whether the result was worth the costs. Owens’ father has called for an investigation.
Officials have disputed an NBC News report that declared the raid had yet to yield any actionable intelligence. The evaluation has not been completed, the sources said, and it would be unfair to make such a conclusion at this point. Officials do believe valuable information has been gained, according to the sources.
President Donald Trump defended the January raid in his Tuesday address to Congress. As Trump spoke, Owens’ wife, Carryn, looked up at the ceiling, seemingly to her late husband, as she sat crying.
“Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,’ ” Trump said.
AQAP is considered by many analysts to be al Qaeda’s most capable affiliate, and the organization has been able to carve out a safe haven in Yemen amid the ongoing civil war there.
“AQAP has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies,” Davis said.
US defense officials have told CNN that the January raid was part of an “expanded mission set” aimed at going after the terror group.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
CNN’s Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.