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WASHINGTON — The Defense Department on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time "multiple ground operations" in Yemen, while noting that the Islamic State has doubled in size in the war-torn country, where an insurgency by Houthi rebels has allowed terrorist groups to seek haven.
"U.S. forces have conducted multiple ground operations and more than 120 strikes in 2017," said a statement from the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
The goal is to "disrupt the ability of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen to use ungoverned spaces in Yemen as a hub for terrorist recruiting, training and base of operations to export terror worldwide."
Before Wednesday's statement, the extent of the U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen was unknown under the Trump administration, with only sporadic acknowledgement of U.S. military operations there. Unlike the campaign in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, the Defense Department did not provide regular updates on either air or ground operations in Yemen.
In January, officials acknowledged a ground raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after Navy Seals encountered stiff resistance that left a Seal, William "Ryan" Owens, dead.
President Donald Trump called that raid a "huge success," a characterization that many in his own party, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized.
The announcement came as the White House sought to use passage of a tax reform bill to celebrate what officials view as victories, both on Capitol Hill and on the battlefield. Vice President Mike Pence said the Islamic State’s "so-called caliphate has crumbled across Syria and Iraq," as he praised Trump's approach to fighting ISIS across the globe.
Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraqi security forces had defeated ISIS in Iraq. U.S. officials congratulated them on their victory, but insisted that difficult days lie ahead.
"Right now, clearly ISIS is getting broken," Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon last week. "The fight is not over with them. Don't believe it when somebody says that ISIS is completely down."
Military officials have been bracing for ISIS to look for safe havens from Africa to Afghanistan as it has lost territory in Iraq and Syria.
On the Horn of Africa, airstrikes against ISIS affiliates in Somalia have accelerated. In October, an ISIS-linked group ambushed a Green Beret-led team in Niger leaving four American soldiers dead, the largest loss on the continent since two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Somalia in 1993.
In the announcement about ISIS in Yemen, the Defense Department also said it had killed three senior al Qaeda leaders last month and 50 ISIS Yemen combatants at two training camps in October.