WASHINGTON – The United States is expanding its shadowy battle against militants in Yemen, including a planned new CIA base nearby in the Persian Gulf, in an attempt to stop a lethal branch of al-Qaida from capitalizing on the political turmoil in Yemen.
The White House has increased the numbers of CIA officers in Yemen, and has signed off on the new base from which to fly armed drones to hunt militants in Yemen, to be completed by next year.
There is an internal debate in the administration over whether U.S. special operations forces should continue to lead the fight, once the CIA's base is complete, three U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss strategic discussions.
In the meantime, the Pentagon's elite special operations forces are taking aim at a greater array of targets, who have been flushed into view by the unrest, as well as the Yemeni government's new willingness to allow U.S. forces to use all tools available — from armed drones to war planes — to take out those targets, three U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified operations.
The U.S. wants to keep the pressure on, to break al-Qaida's current momentum there, the State Department's counterterror coordinator said Tuesday. Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most immediate terror threat to America, is already operating more in the open and has been able to acquire and hold more territory.
Daniel Benjamin said there are growing concerns that AQAP will use the chaos to acquire more weapons, and also to fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants there and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia.
Benjamin says he is hopeful that counterterrorism efforts will continue in Yemen, as the political transition moves along and a new government takes hold.
"Counterterrorism cooperation is not about one man," Benjamin told reporters.
And while he said the U.S. doesn't know what the next government in Yemen will look like, and "there has been some distraction because of the political turmoil," he added that the U.S. believe that cooperation will grow under the new leaders.
He said the U.S. has been in talks with the acting president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly injured in a recent attack and is in Saudi Arabia. He and opposition party rulers are moving slowly toward a transition of the government.
There have been consistent reports of connections between AQAP in Yemen and al-Shabab across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. And those could deepen if the Yemeni government loses more control of its coastal regions.
The waters are already thriving regions for pirates, who take over commercial ships and hold them for ransom. That money, said Benjamin, is making its way into terrorists' hands, although the relationship between the pirates and the insurgents is murky.
"We know that militants have shaken pirates down," he said. "And if that results in money being in terrorist pockets, that's bad news ... If you ask most of the pirates right now, they would consider the terrorists to be parasites who are not helping them in a constructive way."