The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said. Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.
For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. The administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into al-Qaeda recruits.
U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment.
The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, has not been linked to a major terrorist plot since its failed attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago in 2010.
Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear. In Pakistan, the CIA carries out every drone strike. But in Yemen, the United States has relied on a mix of capabilities, including drones flown by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as conventional military aircraft and warships parked off the coast.
The Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks drone operations, estimates that there have been 27 strikes in Yemen since 2009 and that 198 militants and 48 civilians have been killed.
Awlaki was killed last September, six weeks after the CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen. This year, one senior AQAP operative has been killed: Abdul Mun’im Salim al Fatahani, who was suspected of involvement in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, was killed in January by a drone strike in Abyan province, according to the Long War Journal.
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