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US covert attacks in Yemen: A better template for the war on terror?

The new campaign follows US concerns about a fortified Al Qaeda in conflict-torn Yemen. It’s very likely a harbinger of things to come, some national security experts say.

By Staff writer / June 15, 2011

A still image of a video taken Nov. 8, 2010, from the website muslm.net shows Anwar al- Awlaki, a US-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda in Yemen speaking from an undisclosed location.

Muslm.net/Reuters

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Washington

Yemen’s political turmoil is stoking US concerns about a fortified Al Qaeda and prompting the Central Intelligence Agency to jump in with unmanned drones to target Islamist extremists.

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The new campaign relies on special operations and unmanned surveillance and attack – but no boots on the ground. It’s very likely a harbinger of things to come, some national security experts say.

“What this basically says is, we’re not going to do counterinsurgency anymore; from now on it’s counterterrorism,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The focus is back on Al Qaeda.”

Consensus in Washington on Al Qaeda remaining a threat may explain why President Obama faces virtually no opposition to what amounts to a covert war in Yemen – even as he battles Congress over the US military engagement in Libya.

The focus by US intelligence, which CIA Director Leon Panetta announced in broad-brush fashion at a Senate hearing earlier this month, resembles a CIA campaign in Pakistan’s tribal regions, particularly in the use of drones. As in Pakistan, where the objective is to thwart extremists who cross over to attack in neighboring Afghanistan, the Yemen campaign also has a regional aspect.

With Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), particularly active in the country’s south, the United States wants to head off any alliance between Yemen’s extremists and those operating in Somalia across the Gulf of Aden – a crucial global energy transport route.

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