WASHINGTON – The CIA wants to be able to launch drone strikes on terrorism suspects in Yemen even when it does not know the identities of those being targeted, U.S. officials have told The Washington Post.
The "signature strikes," which have been used by the CIA in Pakistan for years, target locations where the agency's intelligence sources identify suspicious behavior. An example would be a strike carried out after satellite imagery showed pictures of militants gathering at Al Qaeda compounds, the Post reported Thursday.
CIA Director David Petraeus has requested permission to use the strikes against Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate in a move that would likely accelerate the number of drone strikes in the country. There has already been eight in the past four months.
The prospect of using a lesser burden of evidence to launch strikes concerns some U.S. officials, who point to incidents such as the accidental killing of Al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awlaki's son last year -- despite the fact he had never been accused of terrorist activity.
"How discriminating can [the strikes] be?" a senior U.S. official told the Post, adding that Yemen's Al Qaeda affiliate is connected strongly to a movement looking to overturn the country's government.
"I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war," the official said.
Citing the Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone operations, the Post said there have been an estimated 27 strikes in Yemen since 2009 -- killing 198 militants and 48 civilians.
The CIA's proposal to expand the drone campaign has been presented to the National Security Council, officials said.
Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment, the Post reported.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is more of a threat today than it was six months ago despite the death of Awlaki, U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence in the region told FoxNews last month.
Asked if the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was stronger and better positioned than it was at the time of his death on Sept. 30 in a CIA drone strike, one official simply responded, "Yes."
"AQAP has been on an upward trajectory," Fox News was told. As the Al Qaeda affiliate has strengthened its base in southern Yemen, U.S. officials said the "expanded domestic footprint provides more room and more opportunity to invite operatives from abroad, more recruits to train and continue plotting external attacks."
One U.S. official even characterized AQAP's expansion since May of 2011 as "a bit of a land grab for them," going as far as to describe how easy it had become for foreign jihadis to join Al Qaeda's most active affiliate which has increasingly moved from a covert to an overt organization.