The CIA is expected to begin operating armed drone aircraft over Yemen, expanding the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in a country where counter-terrorism efforts have been disrupted by political chaos, U.S. officials said.
The plan to move CIA-operated Predator and other unmanned aircraft into the region reflects a decision by President Obama that the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen has grown so serious that patrols by U.S. military drones are not enough.
U.S. officials said the CIA would operate alongside, and in close coordination with, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has been flying Predators and other remotely piloted planes over Yemen for much of the past year.
Because it operates under different legal authorities than the military, the CIA may have greater latitude to carry out strikes if the political climate shifts in Yemen and cooperation with American forces is diminished or cut off.
The expanded drone campaign will make use of “a mix of U.S. assets,” said a U.S. official familiar with the plan. “It’s not like you’re going to have a change of command ceremony that goes from U.S. military to CIA.”
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment when asked Monday about the Yemen plans. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the White House also would not comment. The CIA’s plans were first reported by the Wall Street Journal Monday night.
The new tasking for the agency marks a major escalation of the clandestine American war in Yemen, as well as a substantial expansion of the CIA’s drone war.
The agency pioneered the use of armed drones in Afghanistan a decade ago and has carried out hundreds of strikes in Pakistan in recent years. As a result, officials said, the CIA has developed substantial expertise in using a combination of drone surveillance and the cultivation of human source networks on the ground to carry out strikes inside a country where the U.S. military has limited ability to operate.
The addition of CIA drones also addresses a growing concern inside the Joint Special Operations Command that the military-run drone campaign in Yemen was not getting adequate resources, given the seriousness of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot of the terrorist group is known.
Fewer than a dozen JSOC drones have been available to conduct patrols over Yemen for much of the past year, far fewer than have been used in Afghanistan or Iraq, said a second U.S. official.
The official, and others, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding operations in Yemen. The decision to deploy CIA drones to Yemen comes as cooperation between U.S. special operations forces and Yemeni counter-terrorism units have collapsed amid political turmoil.
Yemen’s dictator for the past three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, flew to Saudi Arabia recently after being injured in an attack. Some Yemeni counter-terrorism teams, which are led by Saleh relatives, have been diverted from the pursuit of AQAP.
The turmoil has put pressure on the White House to use other means to locate AQAP operatives, who are seen as taking advantage of the chaos to improve their position in the country and potentially launch new attacks.
In recent months, some JSOC officers have complained to officials visiting from Washington that their paucity of resources was puzzling, given the concern expressed by the nation’s top intelligence officials about AQAP.
White House officials disputed that characterization. U.S. officials have testified repeatedly in recent months that AQAP represents the most immediate terrorism threat to American targets. At a hearing before a Senate committee Thursday, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed that the agency had expanded its counter-terrorism programs in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
“Our approach has been to develop operations in each of these areas that will contain al-Qaeda and go after them so they have no place to escape,” he said.
The group is responsible for plots that have included the unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and an effort to send packages packed with explosives to addresses in the United States last year.
One of the key figures in the group is an American-born cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who escaped a drone strike targeting him in Yemen last month. That strike was the first by the United States in Yemen since 2002, punctuating a long drought that U.S. officials have attributed to a lack of solid intelligence on the whereabouts of AQAP operatives who went into hiding after a flurry of conventional airstrikes in late 2009 and early 2010.
Another constraint on the Yemen campaign has been the availability of runway capacity at a U.S.-operated airfield in Djibouti, where the JSOC drones are based. It is not clear whether the CIA aircraft will operate from the same facility.
Post staff writers Craig Whitlock and Karen DeYoung contributed to this article.