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The Mideast

CIA Preparing Secret Drone Strikes in Yemen

yemen_anti_government_protest_AP

June 13: A Yemeni army soldier lifted by anti-government protestors, shouts slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP)

The Central Intelligence Agency is planning to use armed drones to target Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, where growing instability poses a national security threat.

A U.S. official confirmed to Fox News that the secret plan has been in the works for months, as leaders have eyed the power vacuum left by anti-government protests and an assassination attempt on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

While the U.S. has conducted military strikes with Yemen’s permission since 2009, the CIA has different legal restrictions that allow the agency to conduct operations even if Saleh reverses past approval or leaves power, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

Additionally, CIA drones use smaller warheads, which officials hope will lower the risk of civilian deaths and anti-American backlash in Yemen, the newspaper said.

In the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, jihadists have moved from other safe havens to Yemen. Al Qaeda leadership in the country is viewed as “the trifecta,” as it includes American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a former protégé of bin Laden and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.

The decision to carry out strikes with or without Saleh’s approval shows that Al Qaeda activity in Yemen is a growing concern that could even eclipse the militant threat of other regions.

Saleh was critically wounded earlier this month after an attack on the presidential palace and is currently in Saudi Arabia for treatment.

Amid the country’s political unrest, the U.S. has been monitoring 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 told The Wall Street Journal. "Whether they're going to succeed or not is an open question."

President Obama secretly approved the Yemen program -- which could start as soon as July -- 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.

Fox News’ Catherine Herridge and NewsCore contributed to this report.

Click here to read more on the covert ops in Yemen from The Wall Street Journal.