Brothers Musaid Mubarak and Abdullah al Daghari were killed in a strike on their car in Shabwa province days after Osama bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan by US commandos.
Suspected US drone kills al Qa'eda pair in Yemen
SANA'A // A suspected US drone strike blew up two al Qa'eda members in Yemen yesterday as analysts predict the country will become the new location for both the terror network's leadership and the troops who will be hunting them down.
Yemen's defence ministry said the brothers Musaid Mubarak and Abdullah al Daghari were killed in a strike on their car in Shabwa province days after Osama bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan by US commandos.
Terror experts believe bin Laden's death means Yemen could now become the terror network's hub with the militants taking advantage of the country's political instability and weak security.
Yemen is both bin Laden's ancestral homeland and home to Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now considered the biggest terrorist threat to international security, according to a White House spokesman.
Under the leadership of the Yemeni-American jihadist cleric Anwar al Awlaqi, terror experts believe the mountains of Yemen could be the next Tora Bora - bin Laden's former hideout in Afghanistan.
Witnesses in the village where yesterday's attack took place said the brothers' car was destroyed by a missile fired from a drone.
The defence ministry described the two men as "extremely dangerous" and involved in many terrorist acts. It said they were killed at dawn in Abdan village after a long hunt.
The witnesses, however, disputed that Yemeni security forces had been involved.
Shabwa is considered a stronghold of AQAP and government forces have limited access to most areas of the province.
"When we heard the explosion, we went to the scene and everything was burnt," said one witness.
A tribal leader in the area, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said: "There were no security forces involved and this district is almost empty of governmental security presence. It was a drone.
"We knew the government would allow the US to attack our areas after the death of bin Laden," he added.
In recent weeks, AQAP has stepped up attacks against security targets in Yemen, killing several soldiers and injuring others. Many predict AQAP to increase its activities because of bin Laden's death.
In response, the security authorities have been on high alert. The government reports that its troops have launched more than seven attacks on al Qa'eda suspects in the last two weeks and that at least 15 soldiers and terror suspects have been killed in the fights.
AQAP was formed when al Qa'eda militants in Yemen merged with its Saudi Arabian affiliate in 2009. The group has staged two failed attacks on the US since 2009: an attempt to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit in December 2009 and a foiled plot to send parcel bombs to US targets in October 2010.
Mr Awlaqi has been described by experts as epitomising a new generation of al Qa'eda leadership that prefers using Yemen as its stronghold.
Nabil Bukairi, director of Abaad Centre for Research and Studies in Yemen, said: "The next terror hub is expected to be Yemen, and Awlaqi has been the face of the group in many of the groups' video postings.
"This is a turning point for the fight against terror," he added.
AQAP has already proven to be a nimble adversary, capable of staying one step ahead of US intelligence agencies. Dating back to the attack that nearly sunk the USS Cole in 2000 in Aden, the group has shown that its operational capabilities are not static.
Edmund J Hull, author of the forthcoming book, High-Value Target: Countering al Qa'eda in Yemen, said: "Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula has ironically proven to be better than either Yemen or the US as a learning organisation." Mr Hull, the US ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said the group "has consistently learnt from its mistakes and adapted".
The organisation has used Mr Awlaqi and fellow US citizen Samir Khan to deliver messages aimed at inspiring and attracting Western jihadists. The group has demonstrated it can get explosives aboard cargo and commercial planes despite tight security.
The death of bin Laden could also have an effect on Yemen's political situation. The president of more than 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has so far clung to power despite three months of protests that have led to the deaths of at least 140 demonstrators.
Ali Abdul Jabbar, a Yemeni political analyst, explained that the protest movement was very close to ousting Mr Saleh last week, but that scenario has been altered by the killing of bin Laden. Mr Jabbar now expects Mr Saleh to stay in power at least until the end of the year.
"The United States cannot allow transfer of power during these critical times, especially that those leading the revolution in Yemen are pro-Islamist parties," said Mr Abdul Jabbar.
"Saleh has been a major ally in the US fight against terror and today is when the US needs him most."
Saber Kareem, an expert in Islamic affairs, said that when dealing with ideological groups the death of a leader has the potential to make groups stronger.
In Yemen, according to Mr Kareem, after the Houthi spiritual leader Hussein al Houthi was killed, the group doubled in power. "Ideologies do not die with the death of their leader. They grow and expand," said Mr Kareem.
Yet not all Yemenis view the death of bin Laden in terms of the domestic terrorist movement. Hareth Showkani, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, thinks the death of bin Laden will decrease the threat of attacks and interference from Western powers.
"We expect less US attacks on so-called al Qa'eda targets after bin Laden's death as the movement is now handicapped and gasping its last breath," said Mr Showkani. "If US attacks continue, it will force the Muslim world to picture the US as an enemy."