Covert Program Would Be a Major Expansion of U.S. Efforts to Kill Members of al Qaeda Branch
June 14, 2011
WASHINGTON—The Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to launch a secret program to kill al Qaeda militants in Yemen, where months of antigovernment protests, an armed revolt and the attempted assassination of the president have left a power vacuum, U.S. officials say.
The covert program that would give the U.S. greater latitude than the current military campaign is the latest step to combat the growing threat from al Qaeda's outpost in Yemen, which has been the source of several attempted attacks on the U.S. and is home to an American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who the U.S. sees as a significant militant threat.
The CIA program will be a major expansion of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Since December 2009, U.S. strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the U.S. military with intelligence support from CIA. Now, the spy agency will carry out aggressive drone strikes itself alongside the military campaign, which has been stepped up in recent weeks after a nearly yearlong hiatus
The U.S. military strikes have been conducted with the permission of the Yemeni government. The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them.
The CIA program also affords the U.S. greater operational secrecy, and because CIA drones use smaller warheads than most manned military aircraft, U.S. officials hope they will reduce the risk of civilian casualties and minimize any anti-American backlash in Yemen.
The Yemen program is modeled on the agency's covert program in Pakistan, which has killed 1,400 militants but is also unpopular in the country, where it is seen as a violation of sovereignty that costs civilian lives. Some U.S. diplomats and military officials have begun questioning whether the pace of Pakistan drone strikes should be slowed to ease the backlash.
President Barack Obama secretly approved the new Yemen program last year. It has been under development for several months because of the complicated logistics required to set up a major intelligence operation in an unstable corner of the world.
The program is authorized under the same broad 2001 presidential finding that created the legal underpinnings for the program in Pakistan. That secret finding, signed by President George W. Bush shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, directed the CIA to find ways to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders.
The Yemen program had been slated to begin in July, but the launch time may be moved back a few weeks to accommodate planning and logistical needs, U.S. officials said. The last known CIA strike in Yemen using an unmanned aircraft was conducted in 2002.
The CIA declined to comment. "As a rule, the CIA does not comment on allegations of prospective counterterrorism operations," said CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf.
White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the program or any shift to the CIA.
The U.S. is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, worries heightened by signs that Islamist militants are trying to seize control of towns in southern Yemen.
"They're looking to take advantage of an opportunity that has arisen," a U.S. intelligence official said of the recent movements in the south. "Whether they're going to succeed or not is an open question."
The CIA has been ramping up its intelligence gathering efforts in Yemen in recent months in order to support a sustained campaign of drone strikes. The CIA coordinates closely with Saudi intelligence officers, who have an extensive network of on-the-ground informants, officials say.
The new CIA drone program will initially focus on collecting intelligence to share with the military, officials said. As the intelligence base for the program grows, it will expand into a targeted killing program like the current operation in Pakistan.
While the specific contours of the CIA program are still being decided, the current thinking is that when the CIA shifts the program from intelligence collection into a targeted killing program, it will select targets using the same broad criteria it uses in Pakistan. There, the agency selects targets by name or if their profile or "pattern of life"—analyzed through persistent surveillance—fits that of known al Qaeda or affiliated militants.
By using those broad criteria, the U.S. would likely conduct more strikes in Yemen, where the U.S. now only goes after known militants, not those who fit the right profile.
The U.S. military narrowed its criteria after a botched strike in May 2010, when U.S. missiles mistakenly killed one of Mr. Saleh's envoys and an unknown number of other people.
That strike infuriated Mr. Saleh and sparked a debate in the Obama administration over whether to target only known militants, such as Mr. Awlaki, or to continue a broader campaign of airstrikes aimed at weakening al Qaeda through attrition.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, said a CIA drone program could help curtail al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but won't be enough to eliminate the group and risks further alienating the Yemeni population.
"Obviously, as things fall apart in Yemen, and the central government is not doing this job, the operational space for unilateral military operations gets bigger and bigger," Mr. Boucek said.
The May 2010 strike was carried out without confirmation from human sources on the ground, U.S. officials said. Administration officials, including top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, concerned about the consequences for U.S.-Yemeni relations, decided to narrow the target list for future strikes to senior al Qaeda leaders.
Most of the military's strikes have been conducted with manned aircraft and cruise missiles. But last month, the U.S. military used an armed drone to try to kill Mr. Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric. The missile missed its target.
U.S. officials say Mr. Awlaki was in contact with an Army psychiatrist charged in a shooting spree in November 2009 at Fort Hood Army base in Texas which killed 13 people. The U.S. added Mr. Awlaki to the CIA's target list after AQAP's failed attempt a month later to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger airliner.
Source: The Wall Street Journal