The Thursday attacks on Loder, Shaqra and Ahwa came just days after a US raid on a jihadist base in central Yemen which left one Navy Seal and up to 30 civilians dead.
The province of Abyan where the towns are located was mostly liberated from al-Qaeda forces last summer with the help of Saudi-led coalition air strikes.
However, a security official said that the jihadis were able to take advantage of the fact government troops had deserted their posts in protest over unpaid wages.
“Our forces are also angry that they have not been provided with the weapons and other equipment to confront the extremists, who have been stepping up their armed attacks,” the official told AFP.
Fighters set up roadblocks and blew up two buildings in the surprise attacks, he continued.
However, air strikes on Loder and Shaqra overnight as well as protest demonstrations from local residents threatening to take up arms managed to dislodge the fighters.
Al-Qaeda has gained a significant foothold in Yemen, flourishing in the chaos of the country’s civil war, which has pitted Shia Houthi rebels against the internationally recognised exiled government.
US drone strikes have continually targeted al-Qaeda bases and supply lines in the country but have not succeeded in dampening the group’s activity.
Thursday’s attacks follow the first military operation carried out by US President Donald Trump, a raid on an alleged al-Qaeda base in central Yemen which has been criticised for allegedly causing the deaths of up to 30 civilians.
“Almost everything went wrong,” a US official told NBC News on background.
As well as the unconfirmed reported civilian casualties and the death of 36-year-old Navy Seal Owen Williams, the MV-22 Osprey involved apparently landed hard, injuring those on board, and later had to be destroyed by a remotely dropped bomb.
The mission had originally been intended to capture intelligence and computer equipment, which this week the White House defended as a success.
“Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 [Al-Qaeda] members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil – is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.
Eight-year-old American citizen Nawar al-Awlaki, daughter of infamous al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in Yemen in 2011, was reportedly among those killed in the weekend’s botched mission.
Since the introduction of Mr Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ travel restrictions for citizens of certain countries, Jihadist-friendly social media channels have suggested that Anwar al-Awlaki’s prediction that “the West would eventually turn against its Muslim citizens” was coming true.
The death of his young daughter could be fuel to the extremist anti-Western narrative, observers say.
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