Three drone strikes hit al Qaeda targets, US officials say; 12 killed

Vehicles and motorbikes drive past barriers blocking access to the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, on Aug. 3. Yahya Arhab / EPA

The U.S. launched three drone strikes Thursday against al Qaeda militant targets in Yemen, U.S. officials told NBC News.

The three strikes killed a total of 12 suspected militants, according to reports from Yemen, and raised to eight the number of attacks in less than two weeks as the Arab nation is on high alert against a suspected terrorist threat.

U.S. officials suggest the latest wave of drone airstrikes is the result of intelligence gathered in the electronic interception last week of high-level al Qaeda communications, which suggested a terrorist plot.

The officials say there is no evidence any of those killed could be considered among al Qaeda leadership.

The Obama administration has ramped up its efforts to target Yemen’s al Qaeda affiliate — known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula —after the interception of a message between its leader and the global leader of the terror network, according to The Associated Press.

Drone attacks have killed 34 suspected militants since July 27, according to an AP count provided by Yemeni security officials.

A Yemeni military official told the AP the first drone attack killed six alleged militants in the central province of Marib, while the second killed three more in the al-Ayoon area of the southern province of Hadramawt. The third strike killed three others in the al-Qutn area of Hadramawt, the official told the AP.

All the strikes targeted cars, the official added, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the media, according to the AP.

The high alert across Yemen came after authorities disclosed that they believed al Qaeda was plotting to attack foreign embassies and international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

Washington temporarily shuttered 19 posts across the Middle East and Africa, and the U.S. and Britain evacuated diplomatic staff from Yemen in the last week.

The drone program is operated by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the Central Intelligence Agency. The military flies drones out of Djibouti, while the CIA dispatches them from a base in Saudi Arabia.

The drone strikes in Yemen have targeted remote mountainous areas and valleys where al Qaeda's key five leaders are believed to have taken shelter, the AP reported. Their ranks include Nasser al-Wahishi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden; Qassem al-Raimi, thought to be the military commander; and Ibrahim al-Asiri.

Related: Yemen: We foiled al Qaeda plot to seize oil, gas plants