REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- U.S. military drone strikes killed a top Al Qaeda operative in Yemen and the son of Anwar Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a similar strike two weeks ago, Yemeni security officials said.
As political unrest continues to roil Yemen, the U.S. has escalated its attacks against Al Qaeda’s affiliate in the country.
Yemeni officials told reporters that nine members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were killed in the strike in southeastern Yemen, including Awlaki’s 21-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman Awlaki, and Egyptian-born Ibrahim Banna, whom officials described as the media chief of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
“Now is the time when they [AQAP] are on their back heels and not the time to let up, so they don’t have the time, place and space to train, plot and execute attacks. It’s the right time to accelerate,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The drone strike in Yemen came as forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for control of southern towns and cities. The militant group and southern secessionists have exploited the nation’s chaos, especially in heavily armed tribal areas that have slipped from government control.
For years, the U.S. has supported Saleh as an ally to contain Al Qaeda from becoming entrenched along the shipping lanes of the Arabian Peninsula. But Saleh’s bloody crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests in the capital, Sana, has drawn criticism from the White House. That is likely to intensify after security forces Saturday reportedly killed at least 10 protesters who were marching toward government buildings.
-- Brian Bennett; Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this post.
Photo: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, center, attends a meeting of the central committee of the ruling party at the presidential palace in Sana, Yemen, on Saturday. Credit: Reuters / Yemen's Presidency