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U.S. to use more drones to hunt for al Qaeda in Yemen

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • Cooperation with the Yemeni president has intensified since the air cargo plot, officials say
  • They describe a build up of intelligence and other assets

(CNN) -- The Obama administration is expected to deploy more Predator drones in Yemen to hunt for and possible strike against, al Qaeda in the country, U.S. officials said.

Air attacks against operatives of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have stopped over the past several months, because the United States lacks actionable intelligence about their whereabouts. After a series of attacks and operations by Yemeni forces earlier this year, the leaders of AQAP have gone underground.

Yemeni authorities are believed to have the best information about AQAP's activities, and officials said the Yemenis have expressed interest in going after the operatives themselves. The United States hopes the addition of more drones will help locate them for target.

"The reason they have stopped is because you have to find the guys first," one official said.

Officials said cooperation with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has intensified in the wake of the cargo plot emanating from Yemen and subsequent shutdown of all cargo to the United States and several European countries coming from Yemen.

These officials describe a major build up of intelligence and other assets already underway, and discussions with the Yemeni authorities about their use.

They said conversations have been taking place between the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa and the CIA and Yemeni intelligence agencies for close to a year about greater intelligence sharing. As one U.S. official put it, "the CIA effort is ramping up in Yemen."

"We are talking with them about sharing intelligence and how to use the assets," another official said. "But this is not something new from a few weeks ago when we found there are packages on planes. We have been having these discussions since the failed bombing last Christmas."

The officials declined to discuss specifics of the drones being used in Yemen, except to say they are operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secret military force which tracks suspected terrorists worldwide. They have been used primarily for surveillance purposes.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Abdullah Al Qirbi, in an interview with CNN, claimed that the United States has provided his government with drone technology.

"The attacks are undertaken by the Yemeni air force but there is intelligence information that is exchanged about the locations of the terrorists by the Americans," Qirbi told CNN's Hala Gorani last week.

U.S. officials praised cooperation with the Yemeni government, which they say has given the United States wide latitude to operate. They did not rule out resuming strikes if the U.S. had actionable intelligence to go after operatives.

"Everything is on the table right now with Yemen except for boots on the ground," one official said. "If the Yemenis are capable and willing to go grab the folks, the U.S. will be able to help in all sorts of ways."

Although the Yemenis have augured a more visible U.S. campaign could cause a backlash in their country, the official said that President Saleh has expressed a willingness to increase Yemeni activities. The Yemenis asked the administration to speed up military equipment the United States has promised.

"The Yemenis understand that the more package bombs are found, it doesn't even require one to go off, but the more of them, the more pressure there will be for the US to take direct action," said the official.

CNN Senior National Security Producer Pam Benson contributed to this reported.