By Greg Miller and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 11:00 PM
For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA analysts see one of al-Qaeda's offshoots - rather than the core group now based in Pakistan - as the most urgent threat to U.S. security, officials said.
The sober new assessment of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has helped prompt senior Obama administration officials to call for an escalation of U.S. operations there - including a proposal to add armed CIA drones to a clandestine campaign of U.S. military strikes, the officials said.
"We are looking to draw on all of the capabilities at our disposal," said a senior Obama administration official, who described plans for "a ramp-up over a period of months."
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, stressed that that analysts continue to see al-Qaeda and its allies in the tribal areas of Pakistan as supremely dangerous adversaries. The officials insisted there would be no letup in their pursuit of Osama bin Laden and other senior figures thought to be hiding in Pakistan.
Indeed, officials said it was largely because al-Qaeda has been decimated by Predator strikes in Pakistan that the franchise in Yemen has emerged as a more potent threat. A CIA strike killed a group of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen in 2002, but officials said the agency has not had that capability on the peninsula for several years.
"We see al-Qaeda as having suffered major losses, unable to replenish ranks and recover at a pace that would keep them on offense," said a senior U.S. official familiar with the CIA's assessments.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as its Yemen-based group is called, is "on the upswing," the official said. "The relative concern ratios are changing. We're more concerned now about AQAP than we were before."
Al-Qaeda in Yemen is seen as more agile and aggressive, officials said. It took the group just a few months to set in motion a plot that succeeded in getting an alleged suicide bomber aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
More important, officials cited the role of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American-born cleric whose command of English and militant ambition have helped transform the Yemen organization into a transnational threat.
Philip Mudd, a former senior official at the CIA and the FBI, argues in a forthcoming article that the threat of a Sept. 11-style attack has been supplanted by a proliferation of plots by AQAP and other affiliates. "The sheer numbers . . . suggest that one of the plots in the United States will succeed," he writes in the latest issue of CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. In the future, he said, "the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region will not be the sole, or even primary, source of bombing suspects."
U.S. officials said the administration's plans to escalate operations in Yemen reflect two aims: improving U.S. intelligence in Yemen and adding new options for carrying out strikes when a target is found.
The CIA has roughly 10 times more people and resources in Pakistan than it does in Yemen. There is no plan to scale back in Pakistan, but officials said the gap is expected to shrink.
Details of the plans to expand operations in Yemen have been discussed in recent weeks among deputies on the National Security Council at the White House, officials said. According to one participant, the talks are not about whether the CIA should replace the U.S. military in its leading operational role in Yemen, but "what's the proper mix."
Although the CIA has expanded the number of case officers collecting intelligence in Yemen over the past year, officials said the agency has not deployed Predator drones or other means of carrying out lethal strikes.
Instead, attacks over the past eight months have been the result of secret military collaboration between Yemen and the United States.
U.S. Special Operations troops have helped train Yemeni forces and helped them to execute raids. A senior U.S. military official said the United States has not used armed drones in Yemen, mainly because they are more urgently needed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, intermittent strikes on al-Qaeda targets have involved cruise missiles and other weapon that are less precise.
An airstrike on a suspected gathering of al-Qaeda operatives in Marib province on May 25 involved a cruise missile launched from a U.S. naval vessel. Among those killed was the deputy governor in the province, who was reportedly seeking to persuade the militants to give up their arms. The human rights group Amnesty International later said it found evidence that U.S. cluster munitions were used in the attack.
Proponents of expanding the CIA's role argue that years of flying armed drones over Pakistan have given the agency expertise in identifying targets and delivering pinpoint strikes. The agency's attacks also leave fewer telltale signs.
"You're not going to find bomb parts with USA markings on them," the senior U.S. official said. Even so, the official said, the administration is considering sending CIA drones to the Arabian Peninsula "not because they require the deniability but because they desire the capability."
A senior Yemeni official indicated that the government would not welcome CIA drones. "I don't think we will ever consider it," the official said. "The situation in Yemen is different than in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is still under control."
Introducing a covert CIA capability might also improve the U.S. ability to carry out attacks - perhaps from a U.S. base in Djibouti - if the Yemeni government were to curtail its cooperation.
That relationship is "in as positive a place as we've been for some time," the senior administration official said. But, he added, "we always have to be in a position where we are able to protect our own interests should that be necessary."
The concern about al-Qaeda in Yemen is remarkable considering that the group was all but stamped out on the peninsula just a few years ago and is known more for near-misses than successful, spectacular attacks.
Indeed, some government intelligence analysts outside the CIA argued that it would be wrong to conclude that al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has eclipsed the organization's core.
"We still do view al-Qaeda core as they view themselves," a senior U.S. counterterrorism analyst said, "which is the vanguard of the jihad, providing a lot of global direction and guidance."
Even under constant pressure from Predator attacks, al-Qaeda has proven remarkably resilient. Officials also stressed that it is surrounded by other militant groups in Pakistan that share its violent aims.
The U.S. citizen who planted a failed bomb at Times Square earlier this year, for example, said he had been trained by the Pakistani Taliban.
But concern about AQAP has risen sharply in the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day attack.
U.S. officials cited recent indications that AQAP has shared its chemical bomb-making technology with other militant organizations, including Somalia-based al-Shabab.
Because Yemen is an Arab country and the ancestral home of bin Laden, some analysts fear that it could be more difficult to dislodge al-Qaeda there than in Pakistan.
Officials acknowledged that since a military strike missed Aulaqi in December, they have had few clues on his whereabouts. Aulaqi has been linked to three plots in the United States, and his presence has further radicalized his peers.
"The other leaders of AQAP are predominantly Yemenis and Saudis, and their worldview and focus is on the peninsula," said the senior U.S. counterterrorism official. Aulaqi "brings a world view and focus that brings it back here to the U.S. homeland."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.