Source: Wall Street Journal , By ADAM ENTOUS And SIOBHAN GORMAN
WASHINGTON—U.S. officials believe al Qaeda in Yemen is now collaborating more closely with allies in Pakistan and Somalia to plot attacks against the U.S., spurring the prospect that the administration will mount a more intense targeted killing program in Yemen.
WSJ.com/Mideast: News, photos, videos Follow @WSJMidEast on Twitter Such a move would give the Central Intelligence Agency a far larger role in what has until now been mainly a secret U.S. military campaign against militant targets in Yemen and across the Horn of Africa. It would likely be modeled after the CIA's covert drone campaign in Pakistan.
The U.S. military's Special Operation Forces and the CIA have been positioning surveillance equipment, drones and personnel in Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia to step up targeting of al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, and Somalia's al Shabaab—Arabic for The Youth.
U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the two groups are working more closely together than ever. "The trajectory is pointing in that direction," a U.S. counterterrorism official said of a growing nexus between the Islamist groups. He said the close proximity between Yemen and Somalia "allows for exchanges, training." But he said the extent to which AQAP and al Shabaab are working together is "hard to measure in an absolute way."
Authorizing covert CIA operations would further consolidate control of future strikes in the hands of the White House, which has enthusiastically embraced the agency's covert drone program in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Residents Flee City in Yemen Congressional officials briefed on the matter compared the growing relationships to partnerships forged between al Qaeda's leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and increasingly capable groups like Taliban factions and the Haqqani network, a group based in the tribal areas of Pakistan that has been battling U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
"You're looking at AQAP. You're looking at al Qaeda in Somalia. You're looking at al Qaeda even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and you see a whole bunch of folks and a whole bunch of activity, as ineffective as it may be right now, talking about and planning attacks in the U.S.," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who is the top Republican on the House intelligence committee.
White House officials had no immediate comment.
Defense officials have long seen links between al Shabaab and al Qaeda as an emerging threat, but some in the CIA were more skeptical. Those disparate views appear to have converged during a recent White House review of the threat posed by the Somali group.
Some lawmakers and intelligence officials now think AQAP and al Shabaab could pose a more immediate threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda leaders now believed to be in Pakistan who were behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but have largely gone into hiding. AQAP and al Shabaab have increasingly sophisticated recruitment techniques and are focused on less spectacular attacks that are harder for U.S. intelligence agencies to detect and to stop.
"It's very possible the next terrorist attack will see its origins coming out of Yemen and Somalia rather than out of Pakistan," Mr. Hoekstra said.
AQAP was behind the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound jetliner last Christmas Day, and has gained in stature in Islamist militant circles in large part because of the appeal of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born, Internet-savvy cleric who some officials see as the group's leader-in-waiting.
U.S. officials have seen indications that al Qaeda leadership is discussing with AQAP an expanded role for Mr. Awlaki, who was allegedly involved in the Christmas bombing attempt and had communicated with Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan.
"They are moving people in who understand the U.S.," a U.S. official said, adding that such people have a unique ability to inspire extremist sympathizers in the U.S. "They know what their vulnerabilities may be. It concerns me a lot."
Al Qaeda's central leadership and affiliates in Yemen and Somalia are increasingly strengthening their ties and have even discussed efforts to attack U.S. interests, U.S. officials say.
Mr. Hoekstra said he was particularly concerned about communications between al Qaeda in Yemen and Shabaab in Somalia. "We get indications their goals are more in alignment in terms of attacking American and western interests and doing it in Europe and the [U.S.] homeland," he said.
This increasing alignment has spawned a debate within the administration over whether to try to replicate the type of drone campaign the CIA has mounted with success in Pakistan. The CIA has rapidly stepped up its drone hits in Pakistan under the Obama administration and is now conducting strikes at an average rate of two or three a week—which amount to about 50 so far this year. Since the beginning of the Obama administration the strikes have killed at least 650 militants, according to a U.S. official. Earlier this year, a U.S. counterterrorism official said around 20 noncombatants have been killed in the CIA campaign in Pakistan, and the number isn't believed to have grown much since then.
Such a move would likely find bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Mr. Hoekstra said he would support a more aggressive effort like that in Yemen. "The more pressure we can keep putting on al Qaeda whether it's in Yemen, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, the better off we will be," he said. "If they asked for the funds, Congress would provide them with it."
Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who serves both on the House intelligence and armed services committees, also said it would be helpful to take similar measures in Yemen.
"The intelligence community, broadly speaking will need to increase its focus on Yemen," he said, adding that the efforts needed aren't just CIA operations but also counterterrorism efforts of other agencies, including the U.S. military.
Giving the CIA greater control of counterterrorism efforts in Yemen could run into resistance from some in the Pentagon who feel a sense of ownership of a campaign against extremists that began last year.
The military's Central Command under Gen. David Petraeus had lobbied aggressively to sharply increase military assistance to Yemen. The military has carried out several strikes against al Qaeda militants in coordination with Yemen's government. One in May killed a deputy governor, angering Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.