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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 counterterrorism adviser, 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.”
U.S. special operations troops were withdrawn from Yemen last year amid the violent protests that toppled Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but Pentagon officials disclosed last week that they had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-Qaida, 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, Sanaa, officials said.