Recent combined air and ground assaults against al Qaeda in Yemen last month were American-led, according to a U.S. special operations expert who trains Yemeni forces.
"It was cruise missile strikes in combination with military units on the ground," Sebastian Gorka, an instructor at the U.S. Special Operation's Command's Joint Special Operations University, told CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier."It was a very distinct signal from the Obama administration that they are serious in assisting Yemen to remove these al Qaeda facilities from its soil.
"That was very much something executed by the United States, but with heavy support by the Yemeni government," Gorka told Dozier.
The target was al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden's group with a popular following in Yemen. AQAP, as it's known in the counterterrorist world, claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Flight 253, which resulted in the arrest of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
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U.S. counterterrorist teams have been tracking al Qaeda in Yemen since the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000. And the Defense Department has been training Yemeni counterterrorist forces since 1990. Training has been conducted by a range of troops. U.S. Marines did much of the training when President George W. Bush was in office. More recently, the Pentagon has dispatched units from the Army's Special Forces/Green Berets, who specialize in what's called "foreign internal defense."
The top American commander in the region, Central Command's Gen. David Petraeus, visited Yemen's capital Sanaa Saturday. It was his last stop in a tour of the region.
Earlier, when he stopped in Baghdad, he praised the joint strikes in Yemen in December.
"In one case, forestalling an attack of four suicide bombers were moving into Sana'a," Petraeus told reporters. "Two training camps targeted and some senior leaders believed to have been killed or seriously injured as well. Certainly there were activities going on there, one of which resulted in the failed attack on the airliner."
But Petraeus was careful to emphasize that the Yemeni government was the decision maker in choosing the targets. He called it "so very important indeed that Yemen has taken the actions that it has and indeed, not just the United States, but countries in the region." Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Britain have all had a role in providing training and other strategic assistance.
While U.S. military officials say the Yemeni counterterrorist forces aren't yet ready to go it alone, Petraeus says their intelligence sources are proving so good that "sharing of intelligence and information" has become what he called a "two-way street," such that "the operations that were carried out in December were very significant."
Yemeni local media report that three strikes on Dec. 17, 2009, hit Abyan, Arhab and San'a, and killed several al Qaeda targets, including one former Guantanamo detainee Hani Abdu Musalih Al-Shalan. He'd been repatriated to Yemen in June 2006 and returned into al Qaeda's fold.
More strikes on Christmas Eve targeted American-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. They struck in Rafd, a mountain valley in Yemen's Shabwa province, but intelligence officials believe Awlaki survived the attack. He was initially thought to be a more inspirational figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but multiple intelligence officials tell CBS News they now believe he is taking an active role in planning operations, including the attempted December airliner bombing.
U.S. officials had kept fairly quiet about the extent of American involvement in the recent Yemeni strikes. But with so many Americans asking what their government is doing to keep them safe after the Christmas Day bombing attempt, many more officials seem eager to describe how they're striking back.
They also say to stand by for more joint U.S.-Yemeni action.