By Barbara Starr
The increased pace of counterterrorism strikes in Yemen by U.S. drones and aircraft is a result of what U.S. military and intelligence officials describe as improved intelligence about the leadership of the al Qaeda movement in that country.
The United States is using a broad range of assets, including manned U.S. fighter jets, along with unmanned drones operated by the military and by the CIA, according to two senior American officials who would not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The target list of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists the United States has developed has emerged since an American drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki last year in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was identified as a key operative, and the United States has focused on trying to determine the leadership structure that has emerged since his death.
Both officials said the standard of judgment for a U.S. strike is that the target must have a "direct interest" in attacking the America.
"The emphasis is on surgical targeting" one official said, explaining that the focus is on specific targets where there is detailed intelligence that supports the decision to conduct an airstrike.
Just this past week, five U.S. drone strikes killed six suspected al Qaeda militants in the southeastern Yemeni province of Shabwa, two security officials and one defense ministry official told CNN's Hakim Almasmari. According to two Defense Ministry officials, at least 11 U.S. attacks were conducted on Yemeni soil over the past week alone.
The Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized on Thursday that the United States is seeking out only those who threaten the America.
"Our target there represents those terrorists, or those al Qaeda terrorists that involve a threat to this country, and there are very specific targets," Panetta said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. "This is not broad-based, we are not becoming part of any kind of civil war disputes in that country. We are very precise, and very targeted and will remain pursuant to those operations."
He added that the position of the administration "is to go after ... those al Qaeda terrorists, who are involved in planning attacks on this country. No more, no less."
The United States is also working with Yemen's special forces to increase their capabilities as part of the counterterrorism strategy in that country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the same committee.
"It's important not to see this as we are only doing one thing and not the other," Gen. Martin Dempsey said.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the CIA is seeking permission to conduct so-called "signature" strikes, which generally are aimed at targets or compounds involving suspicious behavior. CNN has not be able to confirm the report. Panetta would not comment on the Post story when asked about it at the hearing.