In Yemen, lines blur as U.S. steps up airstrikes
As the pace quickens and U.S. targets expand, the distinction may be less
clear between Al Qaeda militants and those fighting only to overthrow
By Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
April 3, 2012
WASHINGTON - A surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Joint Special
Operations Command flew over southeastern
on the evening of March 9, tracking a mid-level
-ORCIG000003751.topic> Al Qaeda commander as he drove to his mountain
American missiles soon rained down. The Al Qaeda commander was killed, along
with 22 other suspected militants, most of them believed to be young
recruits receiving military training, U.S. officials said.
The attack is an example of how the U.S. is escalating its largely secret
campaign in Yemen, taking advantage of improved intelligence and of changes
in Yemen's leadership now that President
PEPLT00008114.topic> Ali Abdullah Saleh has stepped down. The changes have
allowed attacks against militants who until recently might have eluded U.S.
attention, the officials say.
As the pace quickens and the targets expand, however, the distinction may be
blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans
and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.
U.S. officials insist that they will not be drawn into a civil war and that
they do not intend to put ground troops in Yemen other than trainers and
small special operations units.
"We don't want to become involved in the country's internal battles," an
Obama administration official said. "We don't want to turn every
antigovernment fighter against the United States."
The U.S. has focused its airstrikes in areas where militants from Al Qaeda
opic> Arabian Peninsula, the main insurgent group operating in Yemen, and
their tribal allies have seized and held towns in the last year.
The stepped-up U.S. attacks appear aimed in part at preventing militants
from consolidating control over the region - the southern Yemeni provinces
of Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda. Those provinces have become the world's largest
haven for Al Qaeda in the years since the U.S. began drone strikes in the
tribal areas of
Pakistan, U.S. officials say.
Most militants fighting under the Al Qaeda banner in Yemen are local
insurgents, U.S. officials say, along with Saudis bolstering the ranks and
assuming leadership roles. Some of the militants are known to harbor
ambitions of attacking the West: Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who made the
underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in an attempt to blow up an
airliner over Detroit, remains at large in Yemen, U.S. officials say.
The militants say they are fighting the governments in Sana and Riyadh as
well as the United States. They have mounted lethal attacks on Yemeni
government officials and civilians, including a March 5 battle that killed
100 Yemeni soldiers. An Al Qaeda affiliate claimed credit for a March 18
attack in which an American teacher was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding
The U.S. effort in Yemen was brought to a virtual standstill - a "lull,"
Gen. James N. Mattis told Congress - by Saleh's yearlong effort to cling to
power. The U.S. did not want to be seen as backing a repressive ruler, and
it also became dangerous for American personnel to be in the country. Since
Saleh's departure, the use of drones and manned warplanes to attack
militants has expanded significantly.
An airstrike killed three fighters in the town of Jaar on March 11, then
three days later an American missile hit a vehicle and killed four militants
in Bayda. U.S. officials said both attacks were carried out either by the
military's U.S. Joint Special Operations Command or the
-intelligence-agency-ORGOV000009.topic> CIA, each of which fly armed drones
The militants were targeted not because they were plotting attacks against
the U.S. but because intelligence suggested they were planning attacks on
American diplomats or other targets inside Yemen, the U.S officials said.
The CIA began flying drones over Yemen last year, joining a clandestine
military program that was in operation. Some military drones fly from a base
in Djibouti, and CIA drones are based at an undisclosed location in the
U.S. officials would not say exactly how many strikes have been carried out
in Yemen, and it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between Yemeni
military attacks and American actions. Long War Journal, a website that
tracks U.S. counter-terrorism actions, estimates that 23 strikes have been
carried out in Yemen since January 2009, far lower than the 245 drone
strikes it counted in Pakistan during that period.
Since 2002, 160 militants and 47 civilians have been killed in drone strikes
in Yemen, the website found. That is a much higher rate of civilian deaths
than independent experts have seen in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan.
Several officials said there are high-level discussions in Washington about
ways to further expand the U.S. role. U.S. and Yemeni officials have been
surprised and dismayed by how easily Al Qaeda militants have been able to
seize and hold territory in parts of Yemen, and they are determined to
reverse the gains, they say.
The militants in Yemen "are under pressure, but the fact that there are
these areas where they can now operate with relative impunity is of deep
concern," a senior U.S. official said.
Yemen's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has proved more willing than
his predecessor to approve U.S. airstrikes, one of the reasons for the
recent surge in attacks, American and Yemeni officials said.
Last week, Yemen's army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali Ashwal, was in
Washington for talks with
on-PLCUL00216.topic> Pentagon officials. The U.S. is pushing Yemen to
reorganize its military so that it is better positioned to retake the towns
now held by Al Qaeda, an effort that will require tanks and other heavy
weapons, U.S. officials said.
Washington is pressing Hadi to get rid of several of Saleh's relatives who
remain in key military and security posts and to mount a serious military
campaign to retake territory in the south. The commander in charge of the
southern region was replaced after the recent military setbacks.
Hadi "has shown the will and ability to make the changes.... It's a matter
of getting the right focus and the right plan and someone to lead it," the
senior Defense official said.
Heavily armed American soldiers have begun appearing in large numbers at the
Sheraton Hotel in the capital, Sana, a Yemeni official said.
Obama administration officials insist that the rules for targeting Al Qaeda
militants in Yemen have not changed.
In an example of the limits, U.S. forces in Yemen have not used so-called
signature strikes that have been employed in Pakistan - in which the CIA has
used drones to kill fighters on the basis of observed activities that
suggested they were insurgents. Targeting in Yemen is based on intelligence
about particular people, not "pattern of life" analysis, they say.
Some Obama administration officials and members of Congress favor signature
strikes in Yemen, but Obama has resisted, officials say.
One reason for concern about the U.S. strikes is that the intelligence
hasn't always been good enough for U.S. commanders to be sure what their
missiles were aimed at, officials said.
In March 2010, a strike killed the deputy governor of Marib as he sat for
negotiations with an Al Qaeda leader. Afterward, U.S. officials "said we're
not doing drones because we don't have the intelligence structure to be able
to do it well," said Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from
1997 to 2001.
When the drone strikes resumed, the vetting was rigorous, officials say.
Even so, the new, more aggressive approach troubles some critics, who argue
ary-ORGOV000021106.topic> U.S. military strikes have done more harm than
"The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda seems
to get," said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at
EO100100603170000.topic> Towson University in Maryland.
Some analysts argue the American military effort has provoked widespread
anger among Yemenis.
"Drones are a weapon of terror in many ways, and the kind of hostility this
is going to breed may not be worth the counter-terrorism gains," Bodine
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Received on Tue Apr 03 2012 - 16:04:16 EDT