WASHINGTON -- In an escalation of America’s clandestine war in Yemen, a small contingent of U.S. troops is providing targeting data for Yemeni airstrikes as government forces battle to dislodge Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents in the country’s restive south, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.
Operating from a Yemeni base, at least 20 U.S. special operations troops have used satellite imagery, drone video, eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets for an offensive that intensified this week, said U.S. and Yemeni officials who asked not to be identified talking about the sensitive operation.
The U.S. forces also advised Yemeni military commanders on where and when to deploy their troops, two senior Obama administration officials said. The U.S. contingent is expected to grow, a senior military official said.
The Obama administration’s direct military role in Yemen is more extensive than previously reported and represents a deepening involvement in the nation’s growing conflict.
The military and CIA are coordinating a separate but related campaign of airstrikes against members of the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. intelligence officials say poses the greatest threat to America. The Yemen-based group was implicated this month in a failed effort to put a suicide bomber on a U.S.-bound airliner, the latest of several failed bombing attempts.
John Brennan, White House counter-terrorism advisor, flew to Yemen last weekend to meet its new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The administration considers Hadi, who took office in February, an ally and is seeking to support a political transition toward democracy.
U.S. officials remain wary of being drawn into Yemen’s factional political struggles, but they expressed confidence in Hadi.
"There are ways of checking their homework," a senior defense official said of the Yemeni government. "They’ve been trusted partners."
In a show of support for Hadi’s government, President Obama issued an executive order Wednesday giving the Treasury Department authority to freeze U.S. assets of those who "threaten the peace, security and stability" of Yemen. The order, which does not name any individual, is meant to discourage political meddling by those still loyal to the nation’s former dictator, officials said.
U.S. special operations troops were withdrawn from Yemen last year amid the violent protests that toppled Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but Pentagon officials disclosed last week that they had returned. The officials described the deployment as a limited training mission for Yemeni security units fighting Al Qaeda, similar to past efforts.
Once the U.S. forces arrived, however, Hadi was more willing than Saleh to let the Americans work directly with Yemeni military forces outside the capital, Sana, officials said.
The current military offensive coincides with an increase in U.S. military and CIA airstrikes against Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen. They have relied, in part, on intelligence gathered by CIA operatives and contractors in the contested tribal areas, according to a U.S. source with knowledge of the secret operation.
At least 18 U.S. military and drone strikes have been reported against targets inside Yemen since early March, including three in the last week, an upsurge from previous months. U.S. forces have conducted a total of 35 such airstrikes since 2009, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the attacks.
Although it has drawn far less attention, the U.S. counter-
terrorism effort in Yemen has become broader than the decade-old pursuit of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The CIA has launched hundreds of deadly drone strikes against militants there, but Pakistan’s government has not permitted the U.S. military to conduct or coordinate operations on its territory.
The White House insisted Wednesday that the U.S. military role in Yemen is limited in scope and will not drag the U.S. into a broader conflict.
"We’re pursuing a focused counter-terrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. "We have not, and will not, get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort. That would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people."
About 20,000 Yemeni government troops supported by warplanes continued to attack Al Qaeda positions in southern Yemen on Wednesday, killing at least 29 militants, the Associated Press and other news agencies reported, citing Yemeni military officials.
The AP’s Yemen correspondent first reported Tuesday that U.S. special operations forces were assisting Yemeni military forces, citing Yemeni military officials.
Last month, the White House approved broader targeting guidelines for CIA and military airstrikes in Yemen. U.S. airstrikes may now target militants whose names are not known but who have been deemed a threat to U.S. interests.
Obama said in 2010 that he had "no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground" to Yemen. But Army Gen. David Petraeus, now head of the CIA, offered to secretly put U.S. special operations troops in the country, leaked State Department cables show. Then-President Saleh rebuffed his proposal, the cables show.
Obama later authorized a small team of special operations trainers to help Yemeni forces take on Al Qaeda. Based mainly in the capital, those trainers were withdrawn last year but apparently began to filter back early this year.
On March 1, Al Qaeda claimed to have assassinated a CIA officer in southern Yemen. The Pentagon disputed that, but it acknowledged that gunmen opened fire on a "U.S. security training team."
Teams of CIA officers and U.S. contractors have operated in Yemen for some time, hunting Al Qaeda militants and developing intelligence for drone strikes, according to a source with knowledge of the operation. They have recruited tribal militants to provide security, the source said.
U.S. officials declined to comment on that account.
"We do conduct operations with the Yemenis to get after terrorist targets," Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said this week. "We’re not going to go into the details of that."
-- Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. officials say they have faith in Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Credit: Yahya Arhab / EPA