By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five months of successful strikes against al Qaeda leaders reflect an increasingly precise, covert U.S. counter-terrorism campaign that appears to be reaching critical mass after years of heavy investment.
The death of Anwar al-Awlaki in a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Friday followed about a month of crucial intelligence gathered on one of the highest-value U.S. targets, one U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the intelligence footwork goes back much further.
President Barack Obama has vastly expanded the covert U.S. war on violent Islamic militants, expanding not just drone strikes, but also the footprint of a beefed-up U.S. military Special Forces corps.
Meanwhile, the CIA and Special Forces, with distinctly different cultures and operating styles, have learned to work closely in ways that seemed impossible in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Recent counter-terrorism successes in Yemen and Pakistan were the result less of some sudden breakthrough, than they were the gradual accumulation of these changes, said one senior U.S. official with knowledge of the operations.
"The difference now is (that) years of accumulated experience getting inside and degrading al Qaeda is paying increasing dividends," the official told Reuters.
Both drones and special operations forces have played a role in the latest string of high-profile victories, blurring the lines between CIA and military operations in the common pursuit of terrorism suspects.
In August al Qaeda's second-in-command, Atiyah abd al-Rahman was killed in a drone strike in northwest Pakistan. Ilyas Kashmiri, an alleged leader of both al Qaeda and one of its Pakistan-based affiliates, was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in June.
This follows the killing of Osama bin Laden in a covert raid into Pakistan by elite Navy SEALs in May, which led Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to declare the strategic defeat of al Qaeda was within reach.
"AN ENORMOUS IMPROVEMENT"
Improved coordination between the CIA and special operations forces has been key, said Juan Zarate, a White House counter-terrorism adviser to former President George W. Bush.
"There has been an enormous improvement for collaboration on intelligence gathering and our ability to action against intelligence, based on work in Afghanistan and Iraq," Zarate said.
The strike that killed Awlaki, who had proved a frustrating quarry until recent weeks, was another sign of the maturing use of U.S. drone technology and investment. That has helped quicken the pace of killings of key al Qaeda leaders, particularly in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.
"We've moved from the type of warfare where identifying the enemy is easy and killing him is difficult to the kind of warfare where identifying and locating him is the difficult bit," said John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army officer and president of the Center for New American Security think tank.
As Obama wraps up the land war in Iraq this year and starts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the use of drone technology is expected to become an increasingly attractive option for finding and eliminating terrorism suspects in hard-to-reach places.
So will the use of elite U.S. military special operations forces, whose numbers have nearly doubled since September 11.
FROM PAKISTAN TO YEMEN
CIA drone strikes have been taking out lower-level al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas for years before Rahman's killing. But in August 2010 U.S. official signaled plans to put the same kind of pressure on al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The United States now has access to facilities in countries near Yemen including Saudi Arabia from which it can launch drones and ground-based intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, a U.S. official said.
Those could prove invaluable as Yemen's internal unrest increases the risk that militants from al Qaeda may seek to deepen their presence in the country.
The senior U.S. official stressed that the Yemeni government's counter-terrorism program has remained strong despite the turmoil there.
Other U.S. officials have said that during the last several years, the U.S. has also stepped up its own efforts to collect intelligence and conduct operations in Yemen.
But U.S. drones don't only operate in Pakistan and Yemen. The CIA now operates Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft over at least five countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya.
The unmanned aircraft are an attractive option outside declared theaters of war and one which the Obama administration has clearly embraced.
"The thing that made a difference (for the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda) is the drone technology itself and the clear policy decision to rely fairly heavily on this in the absence of a lot of other good alternatives," said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst now at Georgetown University.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Peter Apps in London. Editing by Warren Strobel and Xavier Briand)