By Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:48 AM
The United States has deployed Predator drones to hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen for the first time in years but has not fired missiles from the unmanned aircraft because it lacks solid intelligence on the insurgents' whereabouts, senior U.S. officials said.
The use of the drones is part of a campaign against an al-Qaeda branch that has claimed responsibility for near-miss attacks on U.S. targets that could have had catastrophic results, including the recent plot to place parcels packed with explosives on cargo planes.
U.S. officials said the Predators have been patrolling the skies over Yemen for several months in search of leaders and operatives of the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. After withstanding a flurry of attacks involving Yemeni forces and U.S. cruise missiles earlier this year, AQAP's leaders "went to ground," a senior Obama administration official said.
The use of U.S. drones in Yemen underscores the deep U.S. reliance on what has become a signature weapon against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The deployment also represents an attempt by the Obama administration to reinvigorate a campaign that has gone without a visible U.S. strike for nearly six months. Officials praised Yemeni cooperation and said they have been given wide latitude. Pressed on whether the drones would be free to shoot, a second administration official said, "The only thing that does fall into the 'no' category right now is boots on the ground."
The officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military and intelligence operations.
Yemeni officials said the United States had not yet pushed for the use of Predator-fired missiles and indicated that they had deep reservations about weapons they said could prove counterproductive.
"Why gain enemies right now?" said Mohammed A. Abdulahoum, a senior Yemeni official. "Americans are not rejected in Yemen; the West is respected. Why waste all this for one or two strikes when you don't know who you're striking?"
Instead, Yemen has asked the administration to speed up shipment of promised helicopters and other equipment for its own use, and to recognize the backlash that a more visible U.S. campaign could cause. A U.S. defense official said plans were being made to nearly double military aid, to $250 million, in 2011.
Senior administration officials said that cooperation with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has intensified in the aftermath of the parcel bomb plot and that the subsequent shutdown of commercial and cargo flights from Yemen focused the government's attention on the cost of AQAP's presence in the country. Officials said Saleh had been pushed in extensive talks last week to expand Yemen's own effort and allow increased U.S. action.
"Where we are right now with our capabilities, with our platforms, and with our authorities and permissions," the U.S.-Yemeni pursuit of al-Qaeda "might look very different in 12 months or 18 months," the senior Obama administration official said.
U.S. officials described a major buildup of intelligence and lethal assets already underway, including the arrival of additional CIA teams and up to 100 Special Operations force trainers, and the deployment of sophisticated surveillance and electronic eavesdropping systems operated by spy services including the National Security Agency.
The officials said senior members of AQAP, including the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, have taken advantage of Yemen's rugged terrain and their ties to its tribal networks to all but disappear from view.
"The Yemeni government has the best knowledge" of the group's activities, the senior administration official said. "But their knowledge is limited, too."
A Yemeni judge ordered police Saturday to find Aulaqi "dead or alive," the Associated Press reported, after the cleric failed to appear at his trial for his alleged role in the killing of foreigners.
U.S. officials declined to provide details on the drones that have been deployed to Yemen, except to say that they are operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a clandestine military force responsible for tracking suspected terrorists around the world. By contrast, drones used in Pakistan are operated by the CIA.Intelligence more sparse
The Predators in Yemen are flown from a base outside the country that U.S. officials declined to identify. The most likely options include U.S. military installations in Djibouti and Qatar.
The lack of intelligence in Yemen helps to explain why U.S. counterterrorism operations in al-Qaeda's two main strongholds - Pakistan and Yemen - have been on a different course.
The pace of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal belt has escalated sharply over the past several months, an increase that has matched the intensified U.S. war effort against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. CIA-operated drones launched 38 attacks in Pakistan during September and October, plus four so far this month.
CIA strikes there are aimed not only at top al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan but at Taliban groups that use safe havens there to attack U.S. troops across the border.
Officials said U.S. spy agencies have had nearly a decade to assemble a detailed picture of al-Qaeda and other militant groups in Pakistan, studying aerial images, monitoring cellphone calls and recruiting informants who help direct where drones hover and strike.
"It's like having Google Earth in one area, and you're looking at it constantly, day in, day out, 24-7" over the past nine years, the senior official said of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border.
In contrast, the official described the intelligence buildup in Yemen as "evolutionary," and moving into high gear only since President Obama took office.
The official contrasted Pakistan's relatively compact tribal areas to the vast, untracked spaces of Yemen's mountains and deserts and noted the ability of the Yemeni insurgents to blend in among the population.
"In places like Waziristan [in Pakistan], where you have terrorists in groups that huddle together, that train together, in these redoubts that you can actually sort of see and track and follow, your confidence in doing certain things without incurring collateral damage . . . is much different," the senior Obama administration official said. In Yemen, the official added, "your knowledge base is lower. . . . The fidelity of the picture is less."
The official acknowledged that some parts of the U.S. government are eager to use in Yemen a tool that has been so successfully employed in Pakistan.
"There are a lot of people who are really feeling good about what they're doing in certain parts of the world," the official said.
"But that doesn't mean that, oh, if you'll just let us do this over here you're going to have a different picture or different results" than is now the case in Yemen. The hesitation to use drones in Yemen, he said, "is not just knowledge of targets. It's also issues having to do with collateral damage."Inflaming hostility
The stakes were illustrated in May when a U.S. cruise missile strike against an alleged al-Qaeda gathering killed a deputy provincial governor. Shrapnel from cluster munitions carrying U.S. markings were later found at the scene, prompting protests from the Yemeni government and tribal outrage. Saleh sent troops to Marib province, east of the capital, to put down unrest.
U.S. officials expressed skepticism that the deputy governor was in fact meeting with al-Qaeda operatives in an effort to convince them to disarm, as some Yemeni officials said. But the harsh reaction was real, reinforcing concerns that errant strikes can inflame hostility toward the United States.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the drones' surveillance prowess is often overstated and will be of limited use in identifying al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen without the aid of signal intercepts or human sources on the ground.
"All Land Rovers look pretty much alike," said a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official familiar with operations in Yemen. "You have to have something that tells you this is the one to follow."
While declining to say whether the JSOC drones in Yemen are armed, officials said they would not hesitate to carry out a strike if solid intelligence were acquired. One U.S. official indicated that the U.S. reliance on cruise missiles last spring did not reflect a preference of those weapons over Predators but the fact that drones were not in position at the time.
The only known drone strike to have occurred in Yemen came in 2002, when the CIA fired on a vehicle carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al-Qaeda operative accused of organizing the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. The attack also killed a U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, who the CIA knew was in the car but was not the primary target of the strike.
The absence of drones from the region in the years that followed reflected the temporary decline of al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen, as well as intense demand for Predators and other unmanned aircraft in theaters that were seen as a higher U.S. priority, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda was able to regroup, merging its Saudi Arabian and Yemeni affiliates into AQAP, which is now seen by some officials as a more pressing threat to the United States than the main al-Qaeda organization.
Aulaqi, a New Mexico-born cleric tied to several terrorist plots, earlier this year became the first U.S. citizen to be added to the list of terrorism suspects the CIA is authorized to kill. Another key operative is Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a 28-year-old Saudi national, who is thought to have devised the bombs that were contained in packages mailed from Yemen two weeks ago, as well as the explosive device hidden in the underwear of a young Nigerian accused of attempting to take down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
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DeYoung reported from Halifax, Nova Scotia.