In today's news I read that a major terrorist was killed in Yemen. The Yemeni government statement gave no specifics about how Mr. Shihri was killed, although media reports that both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon in the last several months have escalated America's clandestine campaign against militants in Yemen with a series of drone strikes. Actually, this drone campaign began three years ago in Yemen. Several years ago, in Sanaa, Yemen a drone strike hit a vehicle carrying militants traveling in Hadramawt, in the eastern part of that country. Eight militants were killed and, I recall, that was the third such strike that week!
We are hearing more front page media reports about drone strikes taking out top al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, even though this campaign has been going on for some time. The U.S. intelligence community, mostly the CIA, has considered the Yemen al Qaeda branch the world's most active and has used drones against them for quite some time. The CIA has a policy- if it works well, do it again. Three years ago, I kept my eyes on U.S. and Yemeni newspapers and found that seven other suspected militants were killed in air strikes in the area shortly after the Hadramawt strike! Yemen's government has intensified its campaign against militant groups, backed by U.S. advice and logistical support, and al Qaeda militants have carried out attacks in retaliation.
I researched drone usage in Yemen a year ago, and uncovered reasons why the CIA has been, still is, and will remain, deeply involved in Yemen for years to come. First off, we made a commitment to be there. Four years ago, Gerald Feierstein, the new U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said the U.S. was committed to support the Yemeni army and security forces in their efforts to combat the burgeoning al Qaeda force. He stated, "There is a deep concern that al Qaeda could work freely in Yemen. We understand that fighting extremism cannot be through security only and it should include economic and development reforms. This is what America is committed to directly or through the Friends of Yemen Group.”
In short, we are committed to support the Yemeni Government and its people to overcome al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to secure Yemeni borders, continue to train Yemeni anti-terrorist forces in addition to the provision of necessary equipments to get rid of the immediate threats posed by al Qaeda.
At that time, Yemen’s President Saleh’s ensured that his government would take all necessary measures against terrorists and extremists and they welcomed Feierstein’s statement. Saleh added that he would support all measures mentioned by President Obama. Interestingly, a $1.2 billion assistance bundle was being considered by Washington at that time. Feierstein said much will go to establishing a security department not to fight terrorists directly but to revitalize Yemeni forces and to battle the fight against drugs.
I don't have access to current CIA case officers operating in Yemen, but I believe the number to be large. I do know that the CIA has expanded the number of case officers collecting intelligence in Yemen. These intelligence officers, along with special ops and military intel, are brave souls. On September 25, 2009, al Qaeda in Yemen injured 10 intelligence officers, 3 seriously, in the capital, Sana’a. The attack came just after American instructors finished a training course on fighting terrorism. In another incident, an intelligence officer, Abdullah Ba Sharaheel, was murdered when two gunmen opened fire on him in the city of Al Mukalla. He was on his way home with his family when the al Qaeda gunmen attacked on motorcycles and shot him.
It appears that the CIA is focusing on the Arabian Peninsula in battling al-Qaeda. After all, that's where they fled after fleeing Pakistan. Well, not qutie; the CIA is battling al Qaeda’s offshoots which fled Pakistan. The small, inner core group, is still hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These offshoots are becoming more of a threat to America’s security. The CIA is deeply concerned about these offshoots of al Qaeda, and have influenced President Obama’s tactical measures in Yemen. More clandestine U.S. military strikes and armed CIA drone attacks on terrorists commenced at least three years ago, even though these strikes are making front page headlines today.
Al Qaeda has always aspired, but failed, to create a safe haven in Yemen...in the beginning, that is. From 2001 to 2004, when Edmund J. Hull was the American ambassador to Yemen, U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts defeated al Qaeda at every turn, severely degrading its capabilities. During this period, al Qaeda mounted no successful operations against U.S. interests in Yemen and suffered the loss of its top leadership and cadres.
Unfortunately, things have changed. Their influence there started to boil over three years ago, mainly because, CIA analysts believe, effective drone strikes in Pakistan kept al Qaeda from recovering the offensive game. So, they migrated to the Arabian Peninsula and the new Yemen-based group is called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Let's not forget, they succeeded in getting the Xmas day suicide bomber aboard the plane bound for Detroit. Analysts also believe the deceased Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, helped transform the AQAP into a transnational threat.
I believe the CIA will, indeed, become deeply involved in Yemen. Several years ago, they had 10 times more case officers and recruited assets in Pakistan than in Yemen, but that figure may have changed. The resources in Yemen are classified, but the figures may very well be the same, for the National Security Council met with White House officials and it was decided that the CIA will play a major operational role in Yemen.
Now for the "best-kept secret". It is obvious that the CIA has expanded operations in Yemen, ever since al Qaeda began to swarm there from Pakistan. Now some declassified information: a group of construction workers in the Arabian Peninsula has constructed a "secret" CIA runway to heavily ramp up drone strikes in Yemen designed to target al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The runway and campaign is run by the CIA. I obtained a wall chart that shows al Qaeda's presence in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including their organizational structure, key leadership figures, official media arm, Military Division, Research and Development Division, Shura Council, and AQAP attacks (Delta Christmas attack, attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, etc). The chart is a vast mosaic of networking genius, to say the least.
Personally, I feel our increased presence there is justified. Virtually every attempted terrorist attack against the West by Salafist jihadis since 2009 have had some association with AQAP. AQAP is the most internationally active of the various al Qaeda branches and, as mentioned previously, has been involved in the 2009 attempted ''underpants'' bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, as well as the 2010 cargo bomb plot.
It appears the CIA will remain in Yemen for a long time.
Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S. is a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and writes the online spy series Corey Pearson, CIA Intelligence Operative in the Caribbean islands.