At first, the news from Yemen on May 25 sounded like a modest victory in the campaign against terrorists: an airstrike had hit a group suspected of being operatives for Al Qaeda in the remote desert of Marib Province, birthplace of the legendary queen of Sheba.
The strike, though, was not the work of Yemeni forces. It was a secret mission by the US military, according to American officials, at least the fourth such assault on Al Qaeda in Yemen since December.
The attack offered a glimpse of the Obama administration’s shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies. In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the US has significantly increased operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists. The White House has intensified the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan, approved raids against Qaeda operatives in Somalia and launched clandestine operations from Kenya.
While the stealth war began in the Bush administration, it has expanded under President Obama. Virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the US have been publicly acknowledged. For its part, the Pentagon is becoming more like the CIA. Across the Middle East and elsewhere, Special Operations troops have conducted spying missions that were once the preserve of civilian intelligence agencies. Yet in such wars with a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies, troops can be at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections.
Also as American counterterrorism operations spread beyond war zones into territory hostile to the military, private contractors have taken on a prominent role, raising concerns that the US has outsourced some of its most important missions to at times unaccountable private army.