In Yemen, by contrast, signature strikes will only be allowed when there is clear indication of the presence of an al-Qaeda leader or of plotting against targets in the United States or Americans overseas. In recent months, U.S. spy agencies have collected intelligence indicating plots against American diplomats or U.S. special operations troops who are working alongside Yemeni counter-terrorism units.
But much of the expertise that the CIA and JSOC will employ in Yemen is likely to draw heavily on the agency’s experience in Pakistan. There, officials said, the CIA has become so proficient at monitoring militant groups that it can tell when an al-Qaeda leader is present at a compound through chatter on signals intercepts, security precautions taken before the dignitary’s arrival, as well as the number and behavior of al-Qaeda security personnel around the perimeter of the site.
The target of this week’s strike was an alleged al-Qaeda operative, Mohammed Saeed al Umda, who is thought to have trained at a camp in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001. Yemeni officials described Umda, reportedly also known as Ghareeb al Taizi, as a commander of military operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
But Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, has questioned whether Umda was a high-ranking figure in the group as well as the wisdom of the expanded drone operations.
“Body bags are not a good barometer for success in a war like this,” Johnsen wrote on his blog, responding to reports that the CIA was seeking to use signature strikes. “I would argue that U.S. missile strike[s] are actually one of the major — not the only, but a major — factor in AQAP’s growing strength.
AQAP has significantly expanded in numbers, strength and territory since one of its top leaders, the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a CIA drone strike last year. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan described AQAP as “very, very dangerous” in a speech at New York police headquarters last week, according to an account by CNN.
AQAP has more than 1,000 members in Yemen and “close connections” to al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, Brennan said, according to CNN. “We are very concerned about AQAP. It’s the most active operational franchise.”
AQAP has been tied to terrorist plots including the 2010 attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago and the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes using drones as well as conventional aircraft and ship-based missiles for several years. The CIA joined the hunt last year when it opened a secret drone base at an undisclosed location on the Arabian Peninsula.