WASHINGTON – U.S. officials say American forces launched an airstrike against al-Qaida targets in southern Yemen last week to keep al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoot from taking advantage of the unrest in the Persian Gulf nation.
The officials said Thursday the strike by U.S. war planes last Friday killed a midlevel al-Qaida operative named Abu Ali al-Harithi, and other followers.
It followed a May 5 drone strike that just missed al-Qaida 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 counterterrorist 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."
While not confirming the strike, 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 ongoing revolt aimed at ousting President Ali Abdullah Saleh. U.S. officials said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was trying to exploit the situation to carry out further attacks.
The group 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 a Detroit-bound airliner 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.
Separately, Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said aggressive action was needed now against al-Qaida in Yemen.
"I think this is a time to accelerate and try to take out the top al-Qaida targets" there, she said on CNN. "If we do that, we believe there will be a deterioration of al-Qaida."
In his testimony Thursday, Panetta also said his officers were working together with the military's elite and ultra-secret counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, in Yemen and in other areas where al-Qaida is active.
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 in Somalia killed al-Qaida militant Saleh Ali Nabhan, 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-Qaida 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-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In that operation, the SEALs technically were under the CIA's control by orders of the president.