MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 30 (UPI) -- Somalia's al-Shabaab Islamist group is reported to be transferring foreign fighters to Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, possibly to reinforce al-Qaida militants there who have seized southern cities as the country teeters on the brink of civil war.
The reports from Somalia coincide with an apparent escalation in U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaida, at the same time the U.S. covert war against al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate has also been stepped up.
There have been at least three airstrikes against al-Shabaab in recent weeks. The first was April 6, when a jihadist commander was killed in the town of Dhobley in southern Somalia. Some reports said 35 fighters were slain.
On June 23, unidentified helicopters carried out a nighttime missile strike on a convoy at the al-Shabaab military camp at Qandal outside the southern port of Kismayo.
Two fighters were killed, al-Shabaab communiques said. But other reports say there were 39 fatalities, including foreign fighters.
The targets of the airstrike were reportedly operatives close to Anwar al-Awlaki, a key U.S.-born leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Americans have marked him for assassination for his involvement in jihadist attacks against the United States.
He escaped a drone strike in Yemen carried out by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the elite unit responsible for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Some reports say the raid was carried out by a U.S. armed drone. If that's correct, it would be the first such attack by the Americans in Somalia.
It would add weight to evidence that the Americans are stepping up operations against al-Shabaab as well as AQAP.
All previous airstrikes in Somalia have been carried out by helicopters, AC-130 Specter gunships or cruise missiles.
On June 28, three helicopters were reported to have hit a training camp in the Afmadow district of Lower Juba province near the border with Kenya in a nighttime raid.
There has been no official confirmation of these airstrikes by U.S. authorities.
The BBC reported Tuesday the United States has supplied drone aircraft to Uganda and Burundi, East African states bordering Somalia.
Those countries provide most of the troops for the 8,000-strong Africa Union peacekeeping force backing Somalia's Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, which al-Shabaab is battling to overthrow.
The U.S. Africa Command, based in Germany, said four drones had been provided under a $45 million military aid package to boost their counter-terrorism capabilities.
But as far as is known these have not been in action, and neither country has the capability to conduct precision airstrikes at night like those carried out in June.
For the intelligence services of the West and Saudi Arabia, a hookup between AQAP and al-Shabaab to seize control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a key oil artery linking the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, has long been a nightmare scenario.
Such a merger would also intensify the jihadist threat against Saudi Arabia, Yemen's northern neighbor and the world's leading oil producer.
One report from Somalia said 76 foreign fighters, including several commanders, left Kismayo for Yemen aboard a small boat following the June 23 airstrike.
It was not clear why, but it also followed a series of serious military setbacks for al-Shabaab inflicted by the TFG army and its allies in recent weeks.
That suggests foreign fighters decided to pull out and join AQAP, one of the jihadist network's most effective groups.
It's also coming under increasing attack by U.S. Special Forces, now aided by the CIA, as government authority crumbles in the face of a major uprising to topple longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was badly wounded in a June 3 bombing inside his presidential palace compound in Sanaa, the capital. The blast killed and maimed several of his key aides.
Saleh, 69, was airlifted to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment. He remains there as his impoverished country, increasingly a key battleground in the U.S. war against al-Qaida, falls apart.
AQAP, striking while Yemen's divided military fights among themselves, has seized towns in the south, such as Zinjabar, capital of Abyan province on the Arabian Sea coast.
That's a dangerous development the Americans would want to crush as quickly as possible before it spreads.