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 administrationís direct military role in Yemen is more extensive than previously reported and represents a deepening involvement in the nationís 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 Yemenís 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. "Theyíve been trusted partners." In a show of support for Hadiís 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 nationís former dictator, officials said.
U.S. special operations troops were withdrawn from Yemen last year amid the violent protests that toppled Hadiís predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but Pentagon officials disclosed last week that they had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.