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Operation Copper Dune - Yemen

Operation Copper Dune is the codename for US military operations directly and in support of the Government of Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other terrorist elements in Yemen. By 2017 it was unclear whether these operations were still being conducated under this name, but no other name had been suggested.

The U.S. campaign targeting AQAP with drones has been going on since 2011 with more than 100 strikes by 2016 that have killed some of the group's top leaders, but also brought criticism about civilian deaths.

The United States deployed the USS Cole, an Arleign Burke class destroyer, off the coast of Yemen to protect waterways from Houthi militia aligned with Iran. In October 2000, AQ conducted a suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, with an explosive-laden boat, killing 17 U.S. Navy sailors and injuring 39. The Cole arrived 02 February 2017 in waters near the Bab al-Mandab Strait off southwestern Yemen. The vessel would carry out patrols including escorting vessels, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The USS Cole provides anti-surface and anti-air defense capabilities, allowing the ship to better "reach out and touch" potential enemy attackers, according to the defense official, who added that the ship had not fired into Yemen since its arrival. The U.S. military had a plan "in the works" to move a cruiser or a destroyer into the Bab al-Mandab Strait soon, but the timeline was accelerated due to a Houthi suicide attack on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea that killed two crew members.

Two amphibious ships, the USS Comstock and the USS Makin Island, are nearby in the Gulf of Aden.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was seen as one of the more active affiliates of the Al Qaeda network and a direct threat to the United States. It was not clear what command was the lead on Operation Copper Dune, but it is likely that operations are or were conducted at least in coordination with either Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti or Special Operations Command (Forward) - Yemen inside the country, or both. Elements of Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) had been conducting Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) functions in Yemen since at least 2004.

Yemen 2009

Operation Copper Dune was reported to have begun following the designation by the US Department of State on 14 December 2009 of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a terrorist organization. However, the Central Intelligence Agency had reportedly been carrying out strikes in Yemen using unmanned aerial vehicles as early as 2002. Initially, the operation was said to have targeted 3 specific individuals, one of whom was identified as Muhammed Saleh Al-Anbouri (known as Al-Kazimi). Al-Kazimi was accused of organizing a suicide attack on Spanish tourists in Magrib in 2007, as well as planning an attack against the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The other 2 individuals were associates of Al-Kazimi and were reported to have been codenamed Akron, Toledo, and Cleveland respectively. They were believed to be in the village of Al-Maajal, which the US government described as a terrorist training camp.

On 17 December 2009, a strike was launched against the targets in Al-Maajal. Initial reports were unclear, and the Government of Yemen took full responsibility for the action, which it said first had been conducted by its forces alone, and then said had been conducted in cooperation with the United States. The attacks resulted in a number of civilian casualties, as the targeted individuals had been staying with their families, though the exact number was disputed. The casualties created an outcry in Yemen and elsewhere. In addition, western media and other reports quickly challenged the ability of the Yemeni forces to have carried out the attacks, suggesting that only the United States could have carried out the attack. This assertion was made based on the recovery on the site of debris identified as being from BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missiles. The BGM-109D variant contains a submunition payload, some of which were recovered unexploded, along with other debris. The US never admitted to being involved in the strikes, until evidence in diplomatic cables leaked by the Wikileaks in 2010 confirmed that the US had conducted airstrikes, by manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as missile strikes in Yemen. For instance, in a 2010 cable, it was noted that Yemen's President Saleh had requested military aid for the purchase of 12 armed helicopters, which would allow the Government of Yemen to take the lead in future counterterrorism operations, "ease" the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes.

Yemen 2010

Yemen 2011

In July 2011, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) returned to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia after conducting operations in the 5th, 6th, and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. This included operations conducted in support of Operation Copper Dune. In December 2011, the destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG-91) was reported to be on station support Operation Copper Dune.

On 30 September 2011, US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, described as the leader of external operations Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was killed in a drone strike. Reports quoted US officials as saying the strike had been coordinated by the CIA and led by US Joint Special Operations Command. It was not clear whether this strike was officially part of Operation Copper Dune. The killing of al-Awlaki, a US citizen, set off a fierce debate about the potential use of military force against other US citizens abroad and within the United States, prompting the US government to divulge legal documents and otherwise describe their legal rational for such strikes.

Yemen 2012

On 9 January 2012, close to 50 Marines of Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 252 (VMGR-252) returned to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point following a deployment in support of operations, including Operation Copper Dune. The Marines were attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed with 2 of their KC-130J Hercules transport aircraft for nearly 8 months, 3.5 of them in Djibouti. While in Djibouti, they supported national mission tasking for anti-terrorism efforts in support of Operation Copper Dune.

On 26 April 2012, the Department of Defense said officials were assessing what US national security role they were called upon to perform in Yemen. The Defense Department had suspended military assistance activities in Yemen in 2011 because of political instability there. With a new administration governing Yemen, defense leaders were beginning to reassess, and to start up again, some elements of military assistance. On 8 May 2012, the US Department of Defense announced that US military personnel were again training Yemeni forces.

On 15 May 2012, it was reported that US forces in Yemen were assisting Yemeni forces in operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The US Defense Department acknowledged having trainers in Yemen, but would not go into detail about whether these operations were specifically stationed in Lahj province where raids and ground fighting reportedly killed more than 40 people, including al-Qaida militants and civilians.

On 16 May 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order authorizing sanctions to be imposed on individuals and entities who threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen by disrupting the political transition. This Executive Order allowed the United States to take action against those who seek to undermine Yemen's transition and the Yemeni peoples' clear desire for change. Yemen's transition represented an important step forward for the Yemeni people and the United States said it strongly supported Yemen's political transition. The US said it would continue to work with international partners, including the Gulf Cooperation Council, to help Yemen chart a more secure, democratic, and prosperous path forward.

On 17 May 2012, Yemeni officials said US forces were assisting Yemeni troops in launching a wide air and land offensive against militant groups, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south of the country. Yemeni officials said the most recent assault on militants was carried out by Yemeni warplanes and troops with direct guidance from a small number of US personnel in the country. Anonymously sources reported that US forces were helping Yemenis with intelligence, including satellite imagery, pictures from drones, and other means to help them locate targets.

On 15 June 2012, President Obama sent a letter to the US House of Representatives summarizing the 2012 War Powers Resolution 6-Month Report. In the letter President Obama said that the US military had been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Joint efforts had resulted in direct action against a limited number of that organization's operatives and senior leaders in Yemen who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and its interests.

The mid-September 2012 deployment of an elite team of 50 Marines to the U.S. embassy in Yemen fueled growing opposition to Washington’s role in the small Arab nation, which remained mired in a fragile political transition after a tumultuous year of uprisings dethroned President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years of authoritarian rule. Yemen's parliament voiced concerns about issues of sovereignty after Washington announced its decision to send the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) to bolster security at the embassy in Yemen's capital. "The Parliament of Yemen strongly rejects any foreign military presence on Yemeni soil, whether big or small ... under any pretext," a statement read.

Controversial remarks by transitional President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi during his first trip to Washington in late September may have further complicated his domestic agenda. President Hadi, who was swept to power in February as part of a Gulf-brokered and U.N.-backed power-transfer deal, defended drone strikes as a critical tool. In an interview with The Washington Post, Hadi spoke to the superior technology of drones and argued that the U.S. and Yemen have taken “multiple measures to avoid mistakes of the past,” alluding to collateral damage. He also announced that he gives prior consent for each American strike.

Yemen 2013

In February 2013, a base used for launching US unmanned aerial vehicles was discovered in Saudi Arabia. It was subsequently reported that the base had been constructed in secret in 2010 as base to launch drone strikes at targets in Yemen. It was unclear whether the base or its operations were directly connected to the Operation Copper Dune mission. By 2013, unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Yemen had become the US method of choice for attacking AQAP in Yemen and otherwise supporting Yemeni forces. These strikes were reportedly conducted by both the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency, with the aircraft being launched from bases like the one in Saudi Arabia or Camp Le Monier in Djibouti, the home of CJTF-HOA.

On 14 June 2013, in a letter from President Obama regarding the War Powers Resolution, it was stated that the US military continued to work closely with the Yemeni government to dismantle operationally and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by AQAP, declared to be the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa'ida at that time. US-Yemeni efforts were said to have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in Yemen who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

Yemen 2014

Yemen 2015

There were no permanent US troops in Yemen, but military personnel have been deployed there in recent years for training purposes. The U.S. had maintained a troop presence in Yemen as part of a counter terrorism partnership with the Yemeni government. But the last US forces were pulled out in March 2015 as sectarian violence threatened to rip the country apart.

On 10 September 2015, President Obama announced to the American public his plan to degrade and destroy the terrorist group ISIL. While making his case for America's role in the fight against ISIL, the President highlighted US strategy in Yemen and held it up as a model of success to be emulated in the fight against ISIL. Yet, about a week later, the Iran- backed Houthis seized control of the capital and the government. Despite this, the administration continued to hail our counterterror operations in Yemen as a model for success, even though The US effectively had no partner on the ground since President Hadi was forced to flee.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of the fighting and has capitalized on the deteriorating situation in Yemen. Since the February 2006 escape of 23 Al Qaeda members from a prison in Sanaa, an international coalition of warships has patrolled the waterways off Yemen.

Since the Arab Awakening in 2011, the Huthis have expanded their influence, culminating in a major offensive against military units and tribes affiliated with their Yemeni rivals and enabling their forces to overrun the capital, Sana'a, in September 2014. In January 2015, the Huthis attacked the presidential palace and President HADI's residence and surrounded key government facilities, prompting HADI and the cabinet to submit their resignations. HADI fled to Aden, and in February 2015 rescinded his resignation. He subsequently escaped to Saudi Arabia and asked the GCC to intervene militarily in Yemen to protect the legitimate government from the Huthis.

In March 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm, a series of airstrikes against Huthi and Huthi-affiliated forces. In April 2015, the Saudi Government announced completion of the operation and initiated Operation Restoring Hope, which focuses on humanitarian aid and a return to political dialogue. However, fighting continued through the remainder of 2015 and into early 2016. In April 2015, the UN brokered a "cessation of hostilities" among the warring parties and initiated peace talks in Kuwait.

Yemen 2016

US military personnel were back on the ground in Yemen in an effort help drive al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from the port city of Mukalla. The Pentagon said the small group arrived in Yemen in April 2016 to provide what was being described as limited intelligence support.

"We have seen over the period of many months a troubling growth of AQAP in Yemen,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said 06 May 2016, calling the terror group “a significant security threat to the United States and to our regional partners. Davis said the support included airborne surveillance and reconnaissance, assistance with operational planning and aerial refueling.

The USS Boxer Amphibious Readiness Group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have also been sent to the waters off the coast of Yemen to help provide medical help and maritime security. Davis said the U.S. support is being given to the United Arab Emirates, which has been leading a coalition of Arab countries supporting Yemeni forces in the area.

The Pentagon also said the U.S. had resumed taking unilateral action against AQAP, with four airstrikes against the terror group since 23 April 2016. The strikes killed 10 AQAP operatives and injured another, Davis said, though he added none of the operatives were considered to be high value targets. In the aftermath of the 08 October 2016 Saudi bombing that killed 140 people at a funeral, the Houthis, who are supported by Iran, launched missiles against a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. The US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at three rebel radar installations from USS Nitze, a destroyer, in retaliation for missiles fired at USS Mason. The missiles failed to hit the US ship and the Obama administration retaliated by blowing up three radar facilities on the Yemeni coast. The Houthis reportedly tried again to hit the destroyer and failed.

The U.S. retaliation represented the first direct U.S. military involvement in the war. It risked a further alienation of the Houthis who, prior to the U.S. intervention in support of the Saudi bombing campaign, had on occasion cooperated with U.S. intelligence against AQAP.

Yemen 2017

Yemeni security officials said 02 February 2017 they suspected US warships had directed cannon and rocket fire against al-Qaida militants in Yemen's southern coastal areas. They said 02 February 2017 that naval strikes had been underway for five days, targetting mountainous areas north of the coastal town of Shakr. Dozens of al-Qaida fighters were reported to be assembling there as well as north of the nearby town of Zinjibar.

The US military raid on the militant Islamist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula compound in Yemen 28 January 2016 that killed a U.S. service member and injured three others yielded valuable intelligence, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Jan. 30, 2017. Material captured from the site will help the United States "gain a deeper insight into the group's planning to help prevent terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in the United States and our coalition-partner nations," he said.

Civilian casualties appeared to have been caught up in aerial gunfire that was called in to assist U.S. forces in contact against a determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions and US special operations members receiving fire from all sides, including from houses and other buildings.

Fred Kaplan reported "The raid — which involved several dozen commandos from the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and from the United Arab Emirates’ elite forces — was the first operation in a new policy, proposed by the Pentagon, to step up joint ground attacks against al-Qaida militias in Yemen. Military officials briefed President Obama on the policy proposal, which would give lower-level officers broad latitude to carry out such attacks without going through the sluggish process of seeking authority from higher-ups. Since this would mean a significant escalation of America’s military involvement in Yemen, Obama deferred the issue to his successor..."

The U.S. military conducted strikes on al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in central Yemen on Jan. 20, 21 and 22. On Jan. 20, one strike killed an AQAP operative in the al-Baydah Governorate. On Jan. 21, one strike killed three AQAP operatives in the al-Baydah Governorate. On Jan. 22, one strike killed an AQAP operative in the al-Baydah Governorate.

"Strikes against al-Qa'ida operatives in Yemen put consistent pressure on the terrorist network and prevent them from plotting and executing attacks against the U.S. and our allies," Army Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said 25 January 2017. "AQAP remains a significant threat to the region, the United States, and beyond."

Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to intensify the campaign against the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. US officials said AQAP represented a greater threat to the US homeland than Daesh. In early Mac 2017, the US military carried out an unprecedented 30 airstrikes against the group's suspected positions in south-central Yemen. They were the first US attacks in the country since the January 29 operation in Al Bayda Province in which, along with al-Qaeda militants, 24 Yemeni civilians, among them children, and one Navy SEAL were killed.

President Joe Biden announced 04 February 2021 the United States was ending support for the five-year Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen.“This war has to end,” Biden told diplomats in his first visit to the State Department as president, saying the conflict had created a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” Biden announced that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”.

Congress had repeatedly invoked its war powers authority by voting to end U.S. participation in this war via War Powers Resolutions and amendments to the FY2019, 2020, and 2021 National Defense Authorization Acts, including provisions that mandated an end to intelligence sharing and logistical support for airstrikes. Most recently, Congress also passed a provision in the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act requiring detailed reporting regarding U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s de-facto blockade of Yemen’s air and seaports. Bipartisan majorities of Congress had also voted to block several weapons sales approved by the Trump Administration over concerns about the war in Yemen.

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