The White House, in an effort to turn up the heat against al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, is considering adding the CIA's armed Predator drones to the fight, two U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The drones are among CIA resources that could be assigned to an existing mission by U.S. special operations forces, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press. The official said such options were in the planning stages and would be done only with the cooperation of the Yemeni leadership in Sanaa.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The fact that the White House is considering supplying CIA weapons and other resources to the clandestine counterterrorist fight in Yemen was first reported in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
Yemen is the base of operations for al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas Day and counts American-born rebel cleric Anwar al-Awlaki among its leadership. The U.S. military has been working with the Yemeni counterterrorist forces for years, and that cooperation has increased under the Obama administration.
But officials say the U.S. hasn't yet brought as much pressure to bear against AQAP as they have against its parent organization, Osama bin Laden's Pakistan-based al-Qaida, and that a range of tools and tactics were being considered.
Among the CIA's most lethal tools, armed Predator drones are already hunting high-value militant targets in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions. The idea is to reassign some of those to the U.S. special operations forces assisting local counterterrorist forces in Yemen.
But U.S. officials may have a hard time selling the concept to the Yemeni government in Sanaa, where reports of the potential use of drones has already touched off controversy.
A CIA drone strike made headlines in Yemen, in November 2002, when it killed an American citizen along with a group of al-Qaida operatives. Drones became shorthand in Yemen for a weak government allowing foreign forces to have their way.
Drones would be a "nonstarter," Yemen's ambassador to the United Nations told the AP earlier this year.
"To even posit this theory about U.S. drones only builds support for radicalization," Abdullah al-Saidi said at the time. "Yemen will not allow it."
Yemen's government was caught in the blowback last December when a Yemeni-sanctioned U.S. cruise missile strike killed at least seven al-Qaida operatives in a remote tent camp. The strike also killed dozens of civilians, many of them relatives of the militants.
In another strike, a U.S. missile hit an al-Qaida meeting that included a local Yemeni official whom the Yemen government claimed had been trying to negotiate the militants' surrender.
As a result, U.S. operations were reportedly sharply curtailed and limited to sharing intelligence with Yemeni counterterrorist forces. But a senior U.S. official insisted there had been no appreciable decline in cooperation or action against AQAP. The official said that ebbs and flows in the U.S.-Yemeni relationship are common.