Drones operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command were redeployed in Yemen last year as part of a secret U.S. effort to reinvigorate the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in the country.
Previous strikes in Yemen over the past 18 months involved cruise missiles fired from naval craft off Yemen’s coast.
Thursday’s attack was “the first drone strike,” a U.S. official said. The aircraft have patrolled portions of Yemen for much of the past year, the official said, but had not launched any missiles because of a lack of sufficient targeting information.
U.S. officials said the strike was not related to intelligence gathered since Sunday’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
U.S. officials have previously said that the CIA and U.S. military have struggled to gather meaningful intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot is known. The group has taken advantage of Yemen’s rugged terrain, as well as ties to its prominent tribes, to go deep underground after a series of high-profile strikes by the United States in late 2009 and early 2010.
The redeployment of the drones coincided with a significant expansion of the CIA’s presence in the country, but U.S. officials have said it could take years to build up informant networks and acquire actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of Anwar al-Aulaqi and other al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula figures.
The information about the strike came from Col. Hamid Saleh, security director of the Mayfaa district in the Shabwa governorate. He said the men were killed when a missile struck their car.
A Yemeni government spokesman, although not confirming that the missile was fired by a U.S. drone, identified the dead men as brothers Musaed Mubarak Aldaghery and Abdullah Mubarak Aldaghery.
The two men were active in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, officials said. Even before the killing this week of Osama bin Laden, U.S. government officials had warned that the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen had emerged as a more active and dangerous foe than the core group of al-Qaeda led by its central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Security authorities were tracking them down for some time,” the Yemeni spokesman said of the Aldaghery brothers. “They are known operational al-Qaeda fighters.”
Yemen has been racked for months with anti-government demonstrations calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to relinquish power. U.S. officials have said the political upheaval was interfering with efforts by the United States and Yemen to cooperate on counterterrorism operations.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Saleh has become more concerned with his political survival than fighting al-Qaeda.
“From the start, the Saleh government has been repositioning counterterrorism assets to protect the regime,” he said. “And the longer this political drama goes on in Yemen, the worse things get on the ground . . . so the Americans will step in if they have to.”
Among those killed in the previous drone strike in 2002 was a U.S. citizen suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. The CIA halted its drone campaign in Yemen after that incident.
Recent attacks in central Marib have caused widespread power outages and fuel shortages in the capital, Sanaa, further fueling anti-government sentiment and unrest. In the past week, power stations in Marib have been attacked seven times.
“We demand that [the Yemeni government] give us the truth about these drone strikes. Otherwise, disastrous things will happen to either Americans or Yemenis,” Ibrahim al-Shabawi, the brother of a tribal leader slain in an earlier U.S. attack, said in a recent interview.
Boone is a special correspondent. Miller reported from Washington. Staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.