By Mark Hosenball
LONDON (Reuters) - An Obama administration plan to expand the use of CIA-operated drones against militants in Yemen faces obstacles and will take considerable effort to put into full operation, a U.S. official familiar with the plan said.
It "could take months, not weeks" for the U.S. spy agency to bring its planned Yemen drone activities up to full speed, the official told Reuters.
Other U.S. officials have said that the CIA was trying to build up a drone surveillance and attack capability in Yemen similar to the program the agency uses against militants in tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
But the officials said disorder in Yemen was hampering the agency's efforts to expand its activities. Yemeni government disorganization and, more recently, anti-government protests have made it difficult to set up the kind of physical infrastructure and deploy equipment needed to run a drone program, officials say.
Also, these complications have made it difficult for U.S. agencies to collect the kind of precise targeting information needed for conducting drone-borne missile attacks while insuring that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum.
Violent civil unrest in Yemen has lately become acute with widespread protests against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, who for years turned a blind eye to U.S. counter-terrorism activities on Yemeni territory, is now said to be in Saudi Arabia recovering from serious injuries suffered in an apparent bomb attack on a mosque on the grounds of his presidential palace.
Reports on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post said that CIA was preparing a major expansion of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. The reports said that for about a year, U.S. military special forces have been conducting limited operations, including surveillance activities and some attacks, against Yemen-based militants with intelligence support from the CIA.
One of the purported benefits of expanding CIA drone operations in Yemen, according to the Journal, is that the agency will be able to operate more freely than the U.S. military even if Saleh is replaced by a leader less tolerant of U.S. counter-terrorism operations.
The Journal said that missile warheads carried on CIA attack drones are smaller than ordnance used on drones operated by the U.S. military, making it easier for CIA drones to avoid civilian casualties.
The CIA had no comment on its counter-terrorism operations or plans for Yemen.
At a Senate hearing last week on his nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, current CIA Director Leon Panetta, said the agency was "still very much continuing" its operations inside Yemen despite the disorder there.
U.S. intelligence agencies and some of their counter-parts in Europe are deeply concerned about the capabilities and aims of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and particularly about the activities of Anwar al Awlaki, a U.S.-born, English-speaking cleric believed hiding in a remote area of Yemen.
Intelligence experts say several militants implicated in high-profile attacks against American or European targets have come under Awlaki's influence. These include Major Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at a Texas military base in November 2009, and Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to attack a U.S. bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 with a bomb in his underpants.
In early May, Awlaki was the target of a strike by a missile fired from an American military drone but authorities believe he escaped uninjured. He also reportedly was the target of an unsuccessful U.S. air strike in late 2009.
Because Awlaki is believed by U.S. authorities to be closely protected by members of a militant Yemeni clan in a remote location, collecting intelligence that would enable the CIA or other U.S. units to target him for an attack is said by officials to be a particularly difficult task.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and Bill Trott)