U.S. drone attacks kill at least 55 al-Qaeda militants in Yemen

The United States has escalated its war against Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda after the organization’s chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, proved adept at designing bombs which evaded the best security scanning machines at airports. Asiri was behind the 2009 underwear bomber who tried to bring down a passenger plane on its way to Detroit, and a 2011 plot to send mail bombs hidden in the toner cartridges on U.S.-bound planes.

The CIA was closing in on Asiri, and managed to insert a CIA operative into Asiri’s inner circle – an exceedingly rare coup — but someone leaked details of the secret operation to the AP.

The news service was not persuaded by arguments that infiltrating a tight al-Qaeda cell is nearly impossible, and would become even more difficult after the publication of the story, or by the argument that publishing the story before Asiri and his assistant were taken out meant that they would live to place their sophisticated device on another civilian plane another day.

The AP did agree to delay publication by a week to ten days to allow the CIA to extricate the agent and his family from Saudi Arabia to safety before publication.

Robert Mueller, then-director of the FBI, told lawmakers in May 2012 that “Leaks such as this [the leak to AP] threaten ongoing operations, puts at risk the lives of sources, makes it much more difficult to recruit sources, and damages our relationships with our  foreign partners.”

“Leaks such as this have a — I don’t want overuse the word ‘devastating’ — but have a huge impact on our ability to do our business, not just on a particular source and the threat to the particular source, but your ability to recruit sources is severely hampered.”

On the same day Mueller was testifying before congressional committee, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, addressed the issue of media leaks relating to the plot and called it “devastating.”

“Leaks do endanger people’s lives … that is not an exaggeration,” Olsen said, speaking before the American Bar Association’s standing Committee on Law and National Security, in Washington, D.C.

With the covert approach to neutralize Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda thwarted by the AP story, the United States turned to a more direct approach, increasing the number of drone strikes against militant targets in Yemen.

The militant proved resilient, though. Its fighters overran several towns and cities in southern Yemen in 2011, taking advantage of the chaos created by the popular uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was later driven from power.

A major 2012 government offensive, in which the United States and Saudi Arabia took part, drove out al-Qaeda militants from southern towns they took control of following the security vacuum a year earlier. The militants remained largely mobile and used rugged mountain areas for cover, often with the support of some tribal leaders.