U.S. buys time in Yemen with drone strikes

The Washington Post, AP

The Obama administration authorized a series of drone strikes in Yemen over the past 10 days as part of an effort to disrupt an al-Qaida terrorism plot that has forced the closure of American embassies around the world, U.S. officials said.

The officials said the revived drone campaign — with five strikes in rapid succession — is directly related to intelligence indicating that al-Qaida’s leader has urged the group’s Yemen affiliate to attack Western targets.

The strikes have ended a period in which U.S. drone activity in the Arabian Peninsula has been relatively rare, following a seven-week stretch with no strikes.

It is not clear whether the most recent attacks have suppressed the danger, the officials said, acknowledging there is no indication that senior al-Qaida operatives in Yemen have been killed. The latest strike, on Wednesday, reportedly killed seven suspected militants in the impoverished Shabwa province, Yemeni security officials said.

“It’s too early to tell whether we’ve actually disrupted anything,” a senior U.S. official said. The official described the renewed air assault as part of a coordinated response to intelligence that has alarmed counterterrorism officials but lacks specific details about what al-Qaida may target or when.

“What the U.S. government is trying to do here is to buy time,” the official added.The State Department underlined that approach Tuesday, announcing that it had ordered the evacuation of much of the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and urged all Americans to leave the country immediately.

In a global travel alert, the department said that all nonemergency American government personnel would be removed “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.” It described an “extremely high” security threat level in Yemen.

Yemen is the home base of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch of the terrorist group thought to be the most likely to attack American or Western interests. The U.S. Embassy in Yemen was among 19 that were closed through Saturday, as were embassies in Yemen representing several European nations. The British Embassy said Tuesday that it had removed its staff.

The State Department’s decision drew a sharp rebuke from the Yemeni government, which said the evacuation “serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki took issue with Yemen’s assertion that the U.S. move rewards terrorists and said the decision to remove Americans from the country for safety reasons speaks for itself.

At the same time, jihadists took to Web forums to celebrate the closure of the embassies, with some boasting that doing so was a “nightmare” for the U.S., according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a nonprofit organization that monitors the forums.

The burst of drone activity provides new insight into the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism operations. American officials said the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which operate parallel drone campaigns in Yemen, have refrained from launching missiles for several months, in part because of more restrictive targeting guidelines imposed by President Barack Obama this year. Those new rules, however, allow for strikes to resume in response to an elevated threat.

“They have been holding fire,” said a U.S. official with access to information about the al-Qaida threat and the drone campaign. But intercepted communications between al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who is believed to be in Pakistan, and his counterpart in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahishi, have raised concern that the network is preparing an assault on Western targets.

“The chatter is coming from Yemen,” the official said. Embassies outside the region were closed not because they were specifically mentioned but because they would be prominent targets in Yemen and other countries.