A missile fired by a U.S. Predator drone over Yemen Sunday killed six suspected al Qaeda terrorists in a vehicle about 100 miles east of the nation's capital, the first time the United States has used the unmanned weapon outside Afghanistan, sources familiar with the action said yesterday.
A senior administration official said Yemeni defense officials had identified one of the men killed as Abu Ali al-Harithi, a senior al Qaeda leader and one of the terrorist network's top figures in Yemen. Al-Harithi is one of the suspected planners of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, and has been linked to the Oct. 7 bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.
The attack by the unmanned aircraft marks a new stage in Washington's war on terror and a step up in U.S. assistance for Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih's fight against terrorists who have taken refuge in his mountainous country. Since Salih's meeting with President Bush at the White House in December, military assistance to Yemen has grown to include weapons and training by U.S. Special Forces units.
CIA and Pentagon spokesmen yesterday refused to discuss the operation, although other sources said the CIA has been operating armed Predators over Yemen for months. While many details of Sunday's attack were not available, sources said U.S. operators of the unmanned aircraft, who could be working from ground stations hundreds of miles away, were probably alerted to the al Qaeda utility vehicle and its passengers by intelligence information that may have included intercepted phone messages.
The Predator, which can operate from altitudes of up to 25,000 feet, picked up the vehicle using either television or radar and tracked it as it sped along a highway toward the city of Marib. The aircraft's 14 Hellfire missiles can be aimed and fired by the ground station operators and guided to the target.
Yemeni sources reported that the vehicle was destroyed and that the other passengers were burned beyond recognition.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked at a midday news conference yesterday whether U.S.-Yemeni cooperation could include use of U.S. force against al Qaeda in Yemen, replied: "We have some folks in that country that have been working with the government and helping them think through ways of doing things. It's been a good cooperation, and we've shared some information and we think that over time it ought to be beneficial because there is no question but that there are al Qaeda in Yemen."
Speaking of al-Harithi, Rumsfeld said: "It would be a very good thing if he were out of business."
A senior military officer said no U.S. troops were involved in the attack but said he did not know whether the CIA had a hand in it.
Earlier on Sunday, a helicopter belonging to Hunt Oil Co., a U.S. firm that operates a refinery in Yemen, was attacked by gunmen on the ground as it took off from Sanaa, the capital. One person on the helicopter was wounded. The U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Edmund J. Hull, was scheduled to visit Marib yesterday, but sources said there apparently was no connection between either of those events and the Predator attack.
In Afghanistan, the 27-foot long Predator aircraft first gained notice after it was used in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. The missile destroyed Omar's sport-utility vehicle, but he was not in it. Last spring, a Predator Hellfire missile was used against three individuals in the Afghan mountains near Pakistan, one of whom appeared to be al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Later examination of the bodies showed that bin Laden was not among the dead.
The Pentagon late last year claimed a nearly "100 percent record of hits" in several dozen battlefield attacks by Predators in Afghanistan.
Since U.S.-led coalition forces began driving al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, Yemen -- bin Laden's ancestral home -- has become an increasing focus of U.S. activities. "The inability of the government to control large areas of Yemen has provided the opportunity for terrorist groups to reorganize there," a senior intelligence analyst said yesterday.
In December, attempts by the Yemeni army to force militant Islamic chieftains on the border with Saudi Arabia to turn over al Qaeda suspects ended in disaster, when Yemeni forces lost 13 soldiers in a series of battles.
Among the al Qaeda leaders targeted in the raids were al-Harithi and another Yemeni, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, owner of a company that the United States has branded a financier of terror. Al-Nashiri is believed to have been involved in a failed terrorist attack on warships in the Strait of Gibraltar.
The FBI in February issued an alert naming 17 suspects who might be planning an attack against U.S. interests in Yemen. In April, Yemeni officials broke up a plot to assassinate a high-ranking Yemeni intelligence official who was cooperating with the United States, and an explosive device was found near the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
Yemeni authorities in August discovered a huge cache of plastic explosives at the scene of an accidental blast that killed two al Qaeda operatives and wounded another.
Sunday's attack comes against the backdrop of increased U.S. military and intelligence operations in the Horn of Africa. The Pentagon announced last week that it was increasing its forces in the region to about 1,200 troops and establishing a task force headquarters in Djibouti to facilitate attacks on al Qaeda and training missions with African states.
The task force will include Marines and Special Operations forces in addition to CIA operatives. Defense officials point to the initiative as a prototype for the way military planners may structure future counterterrorism operations.
"The Horn of Africa turns out to be a fairly busy place in terms of the flow of people and other instruments of war -- weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday in answer to a question about the reason for the new task force.
He added that "in the Horn of Africa there are a number of areas that you could call ungoverned, or at least not under some government's tight control, where terrorists can gather and either do operational planning or training and so forth. And so, we're very interested in the area for that reason and have positioned forces there to take appropriate action."
A headquarters element of the 2nd Marine Division, numbering about 400 troops, will head the task force, initially operating offshore from a Navy ship while a command post ashore is built. They will join about 800 Army Special Forces soldiers already in Djibouti.
U.S. Special Forces conducted counterterrorism training with Yemeni troops earlier this year, and a small number of U.S. military personnel have remained there since the summer.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5126-2002Nov4.htmlE-mail this article