U.S. Conducting Covert Airstrikes in Yemen

The U.S. military has launched another air strike in Yemen - this time against a meeting of al Qaeda operatives. As with earlier strikes in Yemen, no one in the U.S. government will officially acknowledge that it took place, but these strikes are part of a stepped up campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization which allegedly dispatched Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmuttulab to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.

The strike took place Monday night, just as the New York Times was revealing the contents of a secret order signed by Gen. David Petraeus directing the military to step up its intelligence operations in countries throughout his area of command, which stretches from Yemen to Pakistan and includes Iran as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The order was issued last September, and since then U.S. military operations in Yemen have taken out a number of senior al Qaeda operatives - although not enough to stop the near-miss on Christmas Day. Yemen is a friendly country (more or less), so both the increased U.S. military presence and the air strikes have the blessing of the government there. But the order covers hostile countries as well. That means small teams of special operations forces could infiltrate countries like Iran or Syria to gather intelligence that could be used if it ever comes to war.

Of course, the U.S. military has been conducting clandestine operations around the world ever since 9/11. But this order signals a step up in those operations throughout the Middle East. So far, the only new operations to come to light are in Yemen, and this latest air strike offers a reminder of the risks involved. Although the target was a meeting of al Qaeda operatives, one of the people killed was a local government official who showed up at the meeting. The Yemeni government says he was there as a mediator, trying to persuade members of al Qaeda to lay down their arms. We don't know for sure why he was there, but, whatever the reason, his death provoked members of his tribe to blow up a crude oil pipeline - and no doubt convinced them that America truly is the Great Satan.

U.S. operations in Yemen are secret because the government there does not want to publicly admit to receiving American help or acquiescing in air strikes on its soil. The strikes are always described by Yemeni officials as "government strikes." It's a flimsy fiction since no one credits the Yemeni military with having the technology or training to carry out precision air strikes. But the Yemeni government brings one thing to the game that all of America's technology and firepower can't - knowledge of the culture and the people.

Military operations always have unintended consequences. This latest air strike is a case in point. The debate is always over whether military action creates more terrorists than it kills by inflaming anti-American sentiment, and that's always hard to measure. But the bottom line question is very simple - does it stop terrorist attacks against the U.S.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.