With the security situation in Yemen continuing to deteriorate, the CIA is planning for the possibility that al-Qaida or other enemies of the United States could seize power there, a senior U.S. official said this week. The United States is building a secret CIA base in the Persian Gulf region to carry out drone strikes against terror targets in Yemen - a facility which will take on much greater importance in the event of a jihadist takeover there.
The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been permitted by the Yemeni government to conduct limited strikes there since 2009. JSOC employs a mix that included special operations teams working with Yemeni forces, armed drones and ship-fired missiles to hunt terrorists. Permission was granted on a case-by-case basis and often depended on the mood of longtime Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, currently being treated in Saudi Arabia for injuries suffered when opposition tribesmen shelled his palace in Sana earlier this month.
But with radical Islamists apparently gaining military strength, Sana is giving U.S. forces greater freedom to target Islamist radicals operating in Yemen. The near-assassination of Saleh has likely reinforced this inclination.
The State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, said Tuesday that Washington had growing concerns that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - currently regarded as the most immediate terror threat to the U.S. - has been able to capture and keep more territory in Yemen.
Another danger is that the AQAP will attempt to take advantage of the chaos there to obtain more weapons and to bolster its connection with al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia, another al-Qaida affiliate, Benjamin said.
Meanwhile, jihadist forces in Yemen continue to make headway. On Wednesday, dozens of gunmen thought to be affiliated with al-Qaida attacked government offices and security buildings in the southern Yemeni town of Huta, killing two policemen and wounding five others.
On Wednesday, a group calling itself "supporters of Sharia" issued a statement condemning Yemeni air force raids against Islamist targets. The group published what it said were the names of pilots "as targets for revenge" and offered a bounty for their capture, Agence France Presse reported.
Read more U.S. military operations in Yemen here.