In Yemen, lines blur as U.S. steps up airstrikes (LA TIMES) By Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud WASHINGTON 04/02/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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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 Yemen´s leaders.
WASHINGTON — A surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Joint
Special Operations Command flew over southeastern Yemen on the
evening of March 9, tracking a mid-level Al Qaeda commander as he
drove to his mountain hideout.
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.
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 Ali Abdullah
Saleh has stepped down. The changes have allowed attacks against
militants who until recently might have eluded U.S. attention, the
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
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 in the Arabian Peninsula, the main insurgent group operating in
Yemen, and their tribal allies have seized and held towns in the last
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.
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 assailants.
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
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 CIA, each of which fly armed drones over Yemen.
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 Arabian Peninsula.
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
Last week, Yemen´s army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali Ashwal,
was in Washington for talks with 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 that U.S. military strikes have done more harm
"The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda
seems to get," said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at 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 said. (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles Times
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