Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch drone strikes at will, each U.S. attack in Yemen — and those being conducted in nearby Somalia, most recently on Thursday near the southern port city of Kismayo — requires White House approval, senior administration officials said.
The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said intended targets must be drawn from an approved list of key members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deemed by U.S. intelligence officials to be involved in planning attacks against the West. White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan last week put their number at “a couple of dozen, maybe.”
Although several unconfirmed strikes each week have been reported by local media in Yemen and Somalia, the administration has made no public acknowledgment of the escalated campaign, and officials who discussed the increase declined to provide numbers.
The heightened air activity coincides with the administration’s determination this year that AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, poses a more significant threat to the United States than the core al-Qaeda group based in Pakistan. The administration has also concluded that AQAP has recruited at least a portion of the main insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, to its anti-Western cause.
From its initial months in office, the Obama administration has debated whether to extend the air attacks that have proved so effective in Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Military and intelligence officials have long argued in favor of attacks against al-Shabab camps in Somalia, which have been under overhead surveillance for years. Other officials have questioned the legal and moral justification for intervening in what, until recently, has been a largely domestic conflict.
The administration has said its legal authority to conduct such strikes, whether with fixed-wing planes, cruise missiles or drones, derives from the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing attacks against al-Qaeda and protection of the U.S. homeland, as well as the international law of self-defense.
“The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan,” Brennan said in remarks prepared for delivery Friday night at Harvard Law School. “We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.”