The US has deployed drones to hunt down Al Qaeda militants in Yemen for the first time in years, said US officials.
The use of unmanned spy plane is part of a campaign against an Al Qaeda branch that has claimed responsibility for several terror attempts on US targets, including the two parcel bombs addressed to Chicago-based synagogues detected on cargo planes in Britain and Dubai Oct 29, The Washington Post reported.
According to senior US officials, the Predator unmanned spy planes have been patrolling the skies over Yemen for several months in search of operatives of the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but they have not fired any missiles due to lack of solid intelligence on the insurgents' whereabouts.
Officials praised Yemeni cooperation and said they have been given wide latitude. Asked whether the drones would be free to shoot, an official said: "The only thing that does fall into the 'no' category right now is boots on the ground."
Senior officials of US President Barack Obama's administration said that cooperation with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has intensified in the aftermath of the parcel bomb plot and that the subsequent shutdown of commercial and cargo flights from Yemen focused the government's attention on the cost of AQAP's presence in the country.
"Where we are right now with our capabilities, with our platforms, and with our authorities and permissions," the US-Yemeni pursuit of Al Qaeda "might look very different in 12 months or 18 months," the senior Obama administration official said.
The US officials said a major buildup of intelligence and lethal assets was already underway, including the arrival of additional CIA teams and up to 100 special operations force trainers and the deployment of sophisticated surveillance and electronic eavesdropping systems operated by spy services including the National Security Agency.
The officials said senior leaders of AQAP, including the US-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, have taken advantage of Yemen's rugged terrain and their ties to its tribal networks to all but disappear from view.
"The Yemeni government has the best knowledge" of the group's activities, the senior administration official said. "But their knowledge is limited, too."
The officials, however, declined to give details on the drones that have been deployed in Yemen, except to say that they are operated by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a clandestine military force responsible for tracking suspected terrorists around the world.
Drones used in Pakistan are operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The drone strikes in Pakistan are aimed not only at top Al Qaeda figures but at Taliban groups that use safe havens there to attack US troops across the border.
Officials said US spy agencies have had nearly a decade to assemble a detailed picture of Al Qaeda and other militant groups in Pakistan, studying aerial images, monitoring cellphone calls and recruiting informants who help direct where drones hover and strike.
"It's like having Google Earth in one area, and you're looking at it constantly, day in, day out, 24-7" over the past nine years, the senior official said of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border.
In contrast, the official described the intelligence buildup in Yemen as "evolutionary", and moving into high gear only since President Obama took office.
The only known drone strike to have occurred in Yemen came in 2002, when the CIA fired on a vehicle carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, an Al Qaeda operative accused of organising the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. The attack also killed a US citizen.