The Secret War in Yemen

On December 17, 2009, an American cruise missile fired from a Navy ship struck an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in southern Yemen. The missile was loaded with cluster bombs, the use of which has been condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights groups for their ability to maximize civilian casualties. The initial strike killed 41 people living near the Qaeda camp, with 3 more killed and 12 more wounded when they stepped on unexploded munitions left on the area from the strike. A week later, another American strike in a remote area 400 miles south of Sana, the Yemeni capital, was made. This time the targets were Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al- Qaeda in Yemen, and his Saudi deputy Said Ali al-Shihri. Both were initially reported dead, along with dozens of others. Witness accounts later clarified that only 5 low-level Qaeda soldiers were killed. The next strike on March 14 of this year, killed a Qaeda operative named Jamil al-Anbari. On May 25, Jabir Al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib Province, was killed in another strike, leaving Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh furious. On June 19, Al-Qaeda retaliated to the targeted strikes with an attack on a government security compound in Aden, killing 11.

Such has been the nature of the Obama administration’s covert war in Yemen. Rather than strain public opinion further after increased skepticism about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration has turned to the C.I.A. to secretly conduct targeted killings and other operations:

The administration’s demands have accelerated a transformation of the C.I.A. into a paramilitary organization as much as a spying agency, which some critics worry could lower the threshold for future quasi-military operations…For its part, the Pentagon is becoming more like the C.I.A. Across the Middle East and elsewhere, Special Operations troops under secret “Execute Orders” have conducted spying missions that were once the preserve of civilian intelligence agencies. With code names like Eager Pawn and Indigo Spade, such programs typically operate with even less transparency and Congressional oversight than traditional covert actions by the C.I.A.

At the moment, the Yemen campaign has not been officially acknowledged by Washington. Instead, the strikes have been deemed a Special Access Program, meaning that there is no requirement that they either be authorized by the president or that Congressional intelligence committees be notified about them. There is debate going on within the White House whether these C.I.A. operations should be deemed an official “covert action,” which would allow them to be carried out without the Yemenis’ approval.

The expansion of C.I.A. paramilitary activity into Yemen is another sign that the American ‘War on Terror’ has been far from limited to just Iraq and Afghanistan. The concerns of many about the unaccountability of executive power and security contractors are being verified with every new reporting about unacknowledged clandestine intelligence activities – not just in Yemen, but also in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Tajikistan.


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