The CIA is planning a campaign of targeted killings by drone aircraft against Al Qaeda militants in Yemen modeled after a similar program in Pakistan, U.S. officials say.
CIA attacks from Predator drones will augment a clandestine effort by U.S. special operations forces, which have been conducting manned airstrikes, drone strikes and small raids in Yemen, the officials said Tuesday.
President Obama authorized the expansion of the counter-terrorism effort in Yemen because of the threat that Al Qaeda's affiliate there poses to the United States, said an official who is regularly briefed on intelligence matters.
The group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the failed effort to bomb a Northwest Airlines jet approaching Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and for bombs slipped onto U.S.-bound cargo planes last year. Last month, a U.S. drone strike failed to kill one of the group's best-known figures, American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki.
Planning for the CIA strikes began before extremists started taking advantage of Yemen's recent unrest, the official said, adding that some officials had complained that the military effort was too small.
The Associated Press has reported that the U.S. is building a CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target terrorists in Yemen. A CIA spokesman, Preston Golson, said the agency would have no comment.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has had a fitful relationship with the U.S. on counter-terrorism issues, is in Saudi Arabia recovering from injuries he received in an attack on his palace June 3.
The country is racked by unrest, including pro-democracy protests, tribal disputes and moves by militants with ties to Al Qaeda, who have seized towns in the southern part of the country. But U.S. officials say the government is continuing counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S. military.
Covert action by the CIA offers the U.S. more freedom of action if a future Yemeni government decides to curb cooperation.
"We have seen what kind of things work to disrupt networks in Pakistan," said the U.S. official, who would not speak publicly about sensitive intelligence matters. "Clearly there is an effort to say, 'Is there any way we can duplicate that to disrupt networks in a place like Yemen that has a lot of similar characteristics?'"
Another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "There's no question that we're trying to look at a lot of different ways to make something happen in Yemen."
That official said the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen "is now the most capable, most imminent threat to the U.S."
In Pakistan, Obama has intensified drone strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.
The CIA has launched at least 208 drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama, compared with 42 under President George W. Bush, according to the New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes through local media reports.