US weighs options against militant threat in Yemen
US officials on Monday weighed increased operations in Yemen to hunt down Al-Qaeda extremists blamed for a foiled bomb plot that experts said showed a high degree of sophistication.
The plot, disrupted last week after a crucial tip from Saudi Arabia, put the spotlight on US efforts to help Sanaa battle Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, amid speculation Washington might opt to expand missile strikes and covert operations.
The Wall Street Journal reported that President Barack Obama's administration was considering placing under CIA authority elite "hunter-killer" special operations teams that operate secretly in the country to track and kill Al-Qaeda leaders.
Shifting to a more covert method under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency would allow Washington to move faster against suspected targets and enable the Yemeni government to deny knowledge of the strikes.
The Pentagon, however, strongly denied the report.
"There is nobody in a leadership position in the Defense Department who's given any serious consideration to the proposal outlined in that article," spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The US military currently oversees efforts to bolster Yemen's counterterrorism campaign, including training by US special forces and widely reported missile strikes against key militants.
"We work very closely with the government of Yemen on our assistance with respect to counterterrorism activities," Whitman said.
But he added: "You're not going to get me to talk about covert operations."
To take on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the United States has dramatically expanded a CIA bombing campaign using unmanned aircraft, and analysts have suggested Obama might opt for a similar approach in Yemen.
Given the risk of civilian casualties and public resentment of US policies, operations against Al-Qaeda in Yemen are a sensitive subject among US officials, who tend to downplay the American role there.
Yemen meanwhile announced a security crackdown on cargo shipments after it appeared the powerful explosives addressed to Chicago area synagogues may have flown on two passenger planes and been intended to blow them up.
The CIA and other spy services managed to prevent the bomb plot thanks to a last-minute tip from Saudi intelligence, but officials remained anxious about Al-Qaeda finding fertile ground in Yemen's impoverished, tribal landscape.
"The intelligence community has been increasing its focus on Yemen and, for obvious reasons, this will continue to be the case," a US official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A former CIA officer warned the explosives found last week by authorities in Britain and Dubai reflected an unprecedented degree of know-how among the violent extremist militants.
"It's too early to panic, but we should seriously start wondering whether the bombs found on airplanes in Dubai and Britain are signs of a new, more dangerous wave of terrorism," wrote author Robert Baer, a former spy.
"These bombs have the hallmark of a higher degree of professionalism than we've ever seen come out of Al-Qaeda. If Al-Qaeda indeed made them, they've teamed up with true professional," he wrote on Time's website.
The US agency tasked with transportation security said it had sent a team of experts to Yemen to help screen US-bound air cargo.
Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said the team of TSA agents will provide screening, training and equipment to examine cargo shipments at Sanaa airport.
"We're aware that were facing a determined enemy," Pistole told the CBS "Early Show," noting the move aimed to ensure air cargo leaving the country will be safe -- once a ban on shipments is lifted.
© 2010 AFP