Despite concerns that the 55 al-Qaida members killed in suspected U.S. drone strikes in Yemen on Monday could easily be replaced, it's critical that the terrorist group's efforts be stalled by every possible means, national security experts told Newsmax on Tuesday.
"If you don't have al-Qaida on its heels in its home turf, then they will use that time to plan, prepare and train for attacks in the region where they're living," former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra said in an interview. "Or, they'll use that time to prepare for future attacks against the West and against the homeland.
"Their goals and objectives have not changed: They still want to attack the United States and our interests — and the golden ring for them is still to attack the United States in the homeland.
"We can't ignore them, and we can't believe that the threat has been eliminated," Hoekstra added. "It has not been eliminated. It is real. It is persistent — and it is dangerous."
The Yemeni government said that as many as 55 al-Qaida members were killed on Monday in a drone strike on a major base of the terror group hidden in the remote southern mountains. Other attacks occurred on Saturday and Sunday, the government said.
The operations were believed to have used U.S. drones, officials said, and Yemen tribal leaders had been quoted in news reports as saying that one local commander, Munnaser al-Anbouri, was killed.
There also was concern about whether Ibrahim al-Asiri was killed
in the drone attacks. He designed underwear and computer cartridge bombs to detonate on American aircraft and U.S.-bound planes.
If confirmed, it would be the most senior member of the terrorist organization to have been killed since Osama bin Laden was shot dead by U.S. special forces in May 2011.
DNA tests were being conducted on several of those killed in the attacks, authorities said. The Yemen branch is known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
U.S. officials have declined to speak specifically about the attacks.
"We have a very strong and collaborative relationship with the Yemeni government," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told Fox News.
"We work closely with them on various initiatives in the counterterrorism realm, but I don’t have any specifics to comment on."
But a statement from the Yemeni government quoted President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi declaring the raids as successful.
"The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place," Hadi said in the statement, Fox reports. "The operation highlights the professionalism, efficiency and combat readiness of the [Counter Terrorism Unit]."
The U.S. considers AQAP to be the most dangerous in the world. Formed in January 2009, the group fled to the region after massive drone attacks backed by the United States.
The group has been blamed for a number of unsuccessful bomb plots aimed at Americans, including an attempt to down a jetliner involving an "underwear bomber" in December 2012 and a second plot to send mail bombs hidden on U.S.-bound planes in the toner bombs designed by al-Asiri.
The group is reportedly plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
Even though many AQAP members were killed in the drone strikes, experts say the group will remain a serious menace unless their government addresses such challenges as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.
"Drones are is very effective, but this is not going to deal with the problem," said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry. "These people are replaceable. You can kill 10 of them, and there's 10 more in the pipeline.
"It's a success that won't end the war against AQAP," Alani said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers raised the same questions in a CNN interview over the weekend. "Top-tier targets had been taken out in the past, and that hasn't made a change to the organization. What kind of blow would it have to the training centers, the recruitment?
"Al-Qaida regenerates," Myers added. "They have a lot of followers. Not all of them were killed. Their resolve, they will always come back, and they will always regenerate."
Hoekstra and Michael Hayden — also a retired Air Force general and who directed both the CIA and the National Security Agency — acknowledged those concerns in their Newsmax interviews.
However, any possible way of stopping AQAP, even with the use of drones, is worth the effort, they said.
"The problem we have is that the enemy has taken safe haven in areas that the host government doesn’t control and we can’t reach in a conventional manner," Hayden said. "This becomes the best choice available to keep the enemy off-balance while we work for longer-term solutions.
"We've got limited tools," he added. "This is one of them. Used prudently, it's a very good thing. I just view this to be part of the natural rhythm in our fight against al-Qaida."
Hoekstra, who briefly visited Yemen after the "underwear bomber" incident, said, "drones have been effective. They are not a precise instrument of war, but they are more precise than some of the other tools we've had available.
"I've always supported the use of drones in fighting an enemy like al-Qaida and radical jihadists," he added. "Al-Qaida has a significant presence in Yemen, and anything we can do in coordination with their government to impact the effectiveness of al-Qaida on the Arabian peninsula, I think are positive steps."
Most importantly, however, Hoekstra said that President Barack Obama's authorization of the use of drones in Yemen proves that his previous criticism of drones — both as a senator and in recent months amid plans to scale back the nation's military arsenal — were unfounded.
"This is the on-again, off-again, on-again drone program," he told Newsmax. "This is the drone program that the president criticized when he was a candidate. Then, he embraced and basically bragged about how many drone attacks were taking place in his administration. And then, he said he was making significant changes to the drone program.
"Then, in a period of two or three days, he orders three fairly significant strikes.
"Have a policy and implement it, all right?" Hoekstra said. "He saw that there was a value to the use of drones. There was no reason for the president to announce that there was going to be a significant scaling back of the use of drones.
"Al-Qaida is on the rise. Al-Qaida is more active in more places today than it was five years ago. What he did over the weekend demonstrated that what he said not all that long ago wasn't all that accurate.
"We have a continued need to use drone attacks and to use them fairly extensively," Hoekstra added. "I'm glad that, once again, he's reversed his position and is now engaging with drones and has maybe recognized that al-Qaida is a force to be reckoned with."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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