U.S. Ramps Up Covert Strikes in Yemen

U.S. officials say American forces launched an airstrike against Al Qaeda targets in southern Yemen last week to keep Al Qaeda's Yemeni offshoot from taking advantage of the unrest there.

The officials said Thursday the strike by U.S. war planes last Friday killed a midlevel Al Qaeda operative named Abu Ali al-Harithi, and other followers.

It followed a May 5 drone strike that just missed US-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, due to a technical malfunction, two U.S. officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operations.

Officials said neither strike was part of any change in policy or intentional increase in counterterror operations, but they were launched because of intelligence leading to the targets.

"These operations have not been stepped up," one official said. "They are dependent on the availability of the right information at the right time."

More On This...

Officials in Washington told the New York Times 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 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.

While not confirming the strike last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta said his agency and elite U.S. special operators were continuing to work with the Yemeni government to keep the militants at bay, despite the continuing revolt aimed at ousting the wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh. U.S. officials said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was trying to exploit the situation to carry out further attacks.

Al Qaeda has been behind some of the most creative recent terror attacks aimed at the U.S., including last year's plot to put explosive devices on U.S.-bound cargo planes, and the attempt to bring down an airliner headed for Detroit, Michigan, in 2009.

"While obviously it's ... a scary and uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism, we're still very much continuing our operations," Panetta said at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to become the next defense secretary.

Panetta added that his officers were working together with the military's elite and ultrasecret counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, in Yemen and in other areas where Al Qaeda is active.

The U.S. campaign is also closely coordinated with the CIA, the Times said.

JSOC is officially described as a training organization, with its terror-fighting role classified. Its operators, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, have been working with Yemeni military and counterterror forces for years, fostering their ability to fight homegrown militants, U.S. officials say.

"We're working with JSOC in their operations," Panetta said. "Same thing is true for Somalia."

A JSOC helicopter raid in 2009 killed Al Qaeda militant Saleh Ali Nabhan in Somalia, who was thought to have helped plan the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Elite special operations teams also have carried out direct attacks on Al Qaeda forces inside Yemen, including a December 2009 strike in which missiles were fired from a Navy ship, coordinated with a small team of U.S. troops on the ground.

Navy SEALs, under JSOC's command, carried out the May raid that killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In that operation, the SEALs technically were under the CIA's control by orders of the president.

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 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.