WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has intensified the covert U.S. war in Yemen, hitting militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, The New York Times reported late Wednesday.
The accelerated campaign has occurred in recent weeks as violent conflict in Yemen has left the government in Sanaa struggling to cling to power, the Times said.
The report, posted on the newspaper's website, said Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to al-Qaida in the south have been pulled back to the capital. American officials hope the strikes will help prevent militants from consolidating power.
A drone strike by U.S. special operations forces on May 5 targeted U.S.-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but a malfunction caused rockets to miss him by a matter of minutes, two U.S. officials told The Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The recent operations come after a nearly yearlong pause in American airstrikes, which were halted amid concerns that poor intelligence had led to bungled missions and civilian deaths that were undercutting the goals of the secret campaign.
Officials in Washington told the Times said that U.S. and Saudi spy services had been receiving more information — from electronic eavesdropping and informants — about the possible locations of militants. But, they added, the outbreak of the wider conflict in Yemen created a new risk that one faction might feed information to the Americans that could trigger airstrikes against a rival group.
The U.S. campaign in Yemen is led by the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command and is closely coordinated with the CIA, the Times said.
The newspaper said that because of concern that support for the campaign could wane if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government were to fall, the U.S. ambassador in Yemen has met recently with leaders of the opposition, partly to make the case for continuing American operations.
Saleh authorized secret American missions in Yemen in 2009 but placed limits on their scope and has said publicly that all military operations have been conducted by his own troops.
Saleh fled the country last week to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after rebel shelling of the presidential compound, and more government troops have been brought back to Sanaa to bolster the government's defense.