WASHINGTON - Increasingly worried that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is taking advantage of the growing political chaos in Yemen, the administration of President Barack Obama has tasked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to use drone missiles to strike at suspected AQAP militants.
The move, which was reported in Tuesday's 'Wall Street Journal' and 'Washington Post', marks a major escalation in Washington's fight against the group, which is widely considered the most threatening to the U.S. homeland of all of Al-Qaeda's affiliates.
Until now, U.S. strikes against suspected militants in Yemen have been conducted by U.S. military forces under rules of engagement that are more restrictive than those that the CIA has used in its drone programme in Pakistan. The new programme will be modelled on the CIA's operations in Pakistan, which has killed some 1,400 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, according to the Journal.
As it has in Pakistan, however, a more-aggressive, CIA-directed drone programme could well provoke anti-Americanism in the population, according to several experts here.
"It is highly likely amid the chaos in Yemen that the blowback from relying on 'death from above' will drive more recruits into AQAP and wipe out any small tactical gains," noted Ken Gude, managing director of the National Security programme at the Center for American Progress Tuesday.
"The best way to blunt AQAP advances is to help resolve the political crisis in Sana'a as rapidly as possible," he added.
That political crisis, which began with student protests in January and evolved increasingly into a power struggle among elite factions, intensified dramatically over the past month when fighting between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and those allied with the powerful al-Ahmar family brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Since the Jun 3 assassination attempt against Saleh and his subsequent evacuation for urgent treatment of his wounds in Saudi Arabia, however, the warring parties have abided by a shaky cease- fire in the capital and Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, with the help of diplomats from the Gulf states and the U.S., has sought to calm tensions. Hadi met Monday for the first time with representatives of the opposition.
Washington, which was slow to distance itself from Salih – in part because of his general, if at times grudging, co-operation with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, has supported a plan by the Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) under which Salih would give up the presidency in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The administration clearly hopes that Salih, whose injuries appear to have been much more serious than first reported, will now be prevailed upon to acquiesce in the proposed deal – which he backed out of three times before – and resign. But with his son and nephews still ensconced in the presidential palace and at the head of elite military units, U.S. officials are worried that the danger of all-out civil war remains a distinct possibility.
Amid all the turmoil of the past several months, however, the government has lost control of much of Yemen's territory, and the resulting power vacuum has enabled AQAP, as well as various other Islamist and tribal groups, to expand their influence in different parts of the country.
Indeed, as Salih's position in the capital eroded over that time, he diverted his elite counter-terrorist units to Sana'a to protect the regime against its foes – much to the disappointment of the U.S., which has spent well over 300 million dollars on training and equipping them over the past five years.
"The operating space for al-Qaeda is getting bigger and bigger," according to Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "As the state's authority recedes, the space for al-Qaeda to plot, plan, and mount operations is getting larger."
Washington is particularly concerned about recent advances by Islamist forces, some of whom are believed to be linked to AQAP, in the southern part of the country close to the Gulf of Aden, particularly in Abyan province, where they reportedly seized control of two towns, including the provincial capital, Zinjibar, late last month.
It is in this context that the administration has reportedly given the go-ahead for the CIA, operating in close co-ordination with the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that has trained and worked with Yemeni counter-terrorist units for several years, expand the current drone programme to kill suspected AQAP militants.
Implicated in three attacks on U.S. territory – the killing by a U.S. Army major of 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in Nov 2009; the foiled Christmas 2009 airliner bombing over Detroit; and the aborted U.S.- bound cargo aircraft bombing last October – AQAP is regarded as the most dangerous of all Al-Qaeda affiliates.
Washington has used drones against targets in Yemen in the past, most notably in 2002 when it struck a car transporting a senior Al-Qaeda official.
In Dec 2009, a U.S. cruise missile presumably fired from a naval vessel killed 52 people, most of them women and children, in what the Salih government initially claimed was an attack on a suspected AQAP training camp in Abyan.
Six months later, another strike, reportedly by a drone, mistakenly killed the deputy governor of Maarib province, Jaber Al-Shabwani, his family, and aides who were on a mediating mission with a tribe in an area where AQAP was active.
Since the May 2 killing in Pakistan by U.S. Special Operations Forces of Al-Qaeda's chief, Osama bin Laden, drones have reportedly been used in several attacks against AQAP suspects in Yemen, including at least one attempt on Anwar Awlaki, a prominent Yemeni-American preacher.
According to the Journal, the current military-run programme targets only individuals that are known AQAP or affiliated militants. Under the criteria used by the CIA in Pakistan, however, targets can be selected by their "pattern of life"; that is, if their activities, as recorded by persistent surveillance, are consistent with those of AQAP militants. The Journal also reported that the CIA intends to co- ordinate closely with Saudi intelligence officers who are believed to be more knowledgeable about Yemen.
All of that worries Gude, who noted the "real potential for U.S. air strikes to either be misdirected or explicitly manipulated by local groups to target rivals." The mistaken strike that killed Al- Shabwani, he added, provoked his tribe to retaliate by destroying a critical oil pipeline that has still not been repaired.
"Every time civilians are killed, you almost always do more harm than good," agreed Carnegie's Boucek. "You turn off the Yemeni people from wanting to co-operate; you turn off the government, because it looks like they're facilitating it. It breeds further radicalisation and makes it appear that Americans only care about terrorism, which is a pretty small issue compared to the challenges that Yemen faces and that lead to state failure or collapse," he added.