Yemeni officials want more U.S. counterterrorism aid, including drone strikes and more U.S. military trainers and advisers, to fight a growing threat from al-Qaida, Yemeni officials said late Wednesday.
But Yemen rejected a CIA and U.S. military request to expand the use of drone strikes to target groups of fighters who appear to be militants, the officials said.
Currently, U.S. counterterrorism forces are limited to striking clearly identified individuals with known links to al-Qaida. The White House approves who goes on the target list, after a lengthy, legal vetting process at the Pentagon and the CIA, and the Yemeni government approves each strike, Yemeni and U.S. officials say.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters.
U.S. officials say the CIA and U.S. military had asked the White House for permission to target larger groups if intelligence points to al-Qaida-related activity. Such hits are known as "signature strikes," used by the CIA against militant targets in Pakistan's tribal regions. Officials reached Wednesday night said the White House had not yet informed them of their decision. White House officials could not be reached for comment.
The request by the combined forces of the U.S. counterterrorism community to use signature strikes was driven by concerns that Yemen's al-Qaida branch is building a safe haven in the south of the country that is proving impenetrable to Yemeni armed forces. The more secure al-Qaida becomes, the more likely the group is to focus once again on attacking the U.S., officials say.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known, is also becoming a top draw for foreign fighters, who used to travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan to wage jihad. Special operations raids in Afghanistan and CIA drone strikes in the Pakistan's tribal regions _ not to mention last year's U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden there _ have made them less desirable destinations, U.S. officials say, whereas al-Qaida's Yemen branch is seen as gaining ground against a government that is allied with the Americans.
Yemen's new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is well aware his forces have lost ground against al-Qaida, and has requested increased U.S. counterterrorist cooperation to combat it, seeking an influx of U.S. military trainers and advisers, the Yemeni officials said.
Hadi also gave the green light to expanded CIA drone activity, one of the officials said. "We are simply allowing the CIA to increase the pace of their strikes to match the U.S. military," he said.
The U.S. has carried out 23 airstrikes in Yemen since last May, with twelve of those strikes in 2012, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. counterterrorism and militant activity.
But Hadi drew the line at signature strikes, fearing targeting larger groups would risk hitting civilians or nonmilitant tribesmen, which could serve to recruit more of the government's tribal enemies to al-Qaida, the Yemeni officials said.
The Yemeni government also refuses to allow the drones to take off from or land on Yemeni soil. The CIA flies its drones from a new base in a neighboring country, while the U.S. military flies its fleet from other bases, including one in Djibouti.