Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous / The Wall Street Journal – 2010-11-02 01:07:33
Yemen Covert Role Pushed
Foiled Bomb Plot Heightens Talk of Putting Elite US Squads in CIA Hands
WASHINGTON (November 1, 2010) — The foiled mail bombing plot by suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen has added urgency to an Obama administration review of expanded military options that include putting elite US hunter-killer teams that operate secretly in the country under Central Intelligence Agency authority.
Officials said support was growing both within the military and the administration for shifting more operational control to the CIAâ€”a move that would allow the US to strike suspected terrorist targets unilaterally with greater stealth and speed.
Allowing the US military’s Special Operations Command units to operate under the CIA would give the US greater leeway to strike at militants even without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government. In addition to streamlining the launching of strikes, it would provide deniability to the Yemeni government because the CIA operations would be covert. The White House is already considering adding armed CIA drones to the arsenal against militants in Yemen, mirroring the agency’s Pakistan campaign.
Yemeni officials have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge US aid in its counterterrorism campaign, given the high anti-American feelings in the country.
Yemen on Sunday released its suspect in the failed plot to send explosives to the US. One package was shipped on cargo planes from Yemen and intercepted in the UK. The other had traveled from San’a to Doha, Qatar, and then to Dubai aboard two separate passenger jets without detection.
UK and US government officials said the devices appeared designed to detonate on an aircraft, and were powerful enough to bring a plane down.
Officials in the US and the United Arab Emirates have said the devices bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda, raising fresh worry about the growing sophistication and ambition of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the terror group’s Yemeni affiliate.
Placing military units overseen by the Pentagon under CIA control is unusual but not unprecedented. Units from the Joint Special Operations Command have been temporarily transferred to the CIA in other countries, including Iraq, in recent years in order to get around restrictions placed on military operations.
The CIA’s drone program targeting Islamic militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions is carried out with the knowledge and cooperation of Islamabad, but US military units don’t operate independently on the ground in Pakistan.
The CIA conducts covert operations based on presidential findings, which can be expanded or altered as needed. Congressional oversight is required but the information is more tightly controlled than for military operations. For example, when the military conducts missions in a friendly country, it operates with the consent of the local government.
An increase in US missile strikes or combat ground operations by American commando forces could test already sensitive relations with Yemen, which US officials believe is too weak to defeat al Qaeda. Such an escalation could prompt Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to end the training his military receives from US special operations forces.
But officials said the US isn’t without leverage. Mr. Saleh depends on US financial support and training for his military to hold off the secessionist movements that threaten his government.
At the same time, an expanded US military role could fuel a public backlash against Yemen’s already weak government and increase support for al Qaeda, experts have warned.
The White House and the Yemeni Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Yemen has allowed the US military to carry out a series of strikes on al Qaeda targets over the past year. But in some cases, Sana’a has delayed or objected to US operations. A shift to the CIA would streamline US decision-making, giving the White House more direct control over day-to-day operations.
U.S. Special Operations teams in Yemen, birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father, already play an expansive role in the country. Some spearhead an effort to track and kill al Qaeda leaders as part of a campaign authorized by President Barack Obama. Other teams run small development projects, a role typically handled by State Department aid officials.
The US military accelerated strikes against Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula following December’s failed attempt by the group to blow up a Detroit-bound American airliner. Since last December, the US military has carried out a series of missile strikes on alleged al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. All of the strikes were approved by Washington’s ambassador to Sana’a.
The US is pursuing a number of senior al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, including Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is suspected of creating the most recent explosive packages, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical US-born cleric who has become a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Under the current proposal, special operations units would continue to train Yemeni security forces, as well as develop relationships with key Yemeni officers.
But cooperation with the US by the Yemen government has run hot and cold, officials said.
Last summer, Mr. Saleh reacted angrily to reports that civilians were killed in one such joint strike, blaming the US for mistakes in the raid, and temporarily making it more difficult for the US to conduct training and operations.
Relations have improved. But remaining limits to what Mr. Saleh will allow will likely be harder for the White House to accept after the attempted attack last week.
“At the end of the day they limit us when we are getting too close,” said the senior US official.
Margaret Coker contributed to this article.
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