Image: Anwar al-Awlaki
AFP - Getty Images file
Radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is seen in a video release in September. He's been a target of U.S. drone attacks in Yemen.
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updated 6/14/2011 6:53:08 PM ET 2011-06-14T22:53:08

The United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target terrorists in Yemen, preparing for the possibility that an anti-American faction may take over Yemen and ban U.S. forces from hunting a lethal al-Qaida faction there, The Associated Press has learned.

The anti-al-Qaida effort in Yemen is being run by the Joint Special Operations Command, the top U.S. military counterterrorism outfit, and the CIA provides intelligence support. JSOC forces have been allowed by the Yemeni government to conduct limited strikes there since 2009 and have recently allowed expanded strikes by U.S. armed drones and even war planes against al-Qaida targets who are taking advantage of civil unrest to grab power and territory in the Gulf country.

The new CIA base provides a backstop, if al-Qaida or other anti-American rebel forces gain control, one senior U.S. official explained. The White House has already increased the numbers of CIA officers in Yemen, in anticipation of that possibility. And it has stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to a rushed eight months.

The Associated Press has withheld the exact location at the request of U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified.

Long-term commitment?
Drones like Reapers and Predators are unmanned aircraft that can be flown from remote locations and hover over a target before firing a missile. Yemeni officials have indicated their preference toward drones, versus allowing U.S. counterterror strike teams on Yemeni soil, saying they are less apt to incense the local population.

The planned CIA base suggests a long-term U.S. commitment to fighting al-Qaida in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit, though not public, Pakistani government approval. Its construction also indicates a possible shift in the internal debate in the administration over whether U.S. special operations forces should continue to lead the fight in Yemen, U.S. officials said.

While that policy debate plays out in Washington, U.S. special operations forces based just outside Yemen are taking aim almost daily at a greater array of targets that have been flushed into view by the unrest. U.S. forces have stepped up their targeting as well, because of the besieged Yemeni government's new willingness to allow U.S. forces to use all tools available — from armed drones to war planes — against al-Qaida as a way to stay in power, the U.S. officials said.

Story: Young Somali soldier: I killed top al-Qaida operative

The CIA would not confirm the White House decision to build the CIA base or expand the agency's operations in Yemen.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said last week that agency officers were working in Yemen together with JSOC, as well as other areas where al-Qaida is active.

The U.S. needs to keep the pressure on, to break al-Qaida's momentum there, the State Department's counterterror coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, said Tuesday. Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most immediate terror threat to America, is already operating more in the open and has been able to acquire and hold more territory, he said.

Benjamin added said there are growing concerns that AQAP will use the chaos to acquire more weapons, and also to fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants there and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia.

Opposition to U.S. program
The Obama administration has been working for months in concert with the mediation efforts of Yemen's Gulf neighbors to persuade President Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer power. Since Saleh left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has continued to press for a deal in the hope that a political solution could pre-empt any plan by the Yemeni leader of 33 years to return. That, officials fear, could lead to further instability.

Benjamin said he is hopeful that counterterrorism efforts will continue in Yemen, as the political transition moves along and a new government takes hold.

But another U.S. official said Yemeni opposition groups have voiced criticism of the U.S. counterterror program and vowed to stop it, should they take power.

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

Since 2009, Yemen has allowed JSOC to employ a mixture of armed and unarmed drones, ship-fired missiles, small special operations teams working with Yemenis, and occasional war plane bombing runs, Yemeni and U.S. officials say. But permission was on a case-by-case basis, and waxed and waned depending on the mood of the mercurial Yemeni president.

With al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula essentially in control of large swathes of Yemeni territory, the Yemeni government now hopes U.S. targeting will remove some of the enemies threatening the Saleh regime. That new target-at-will attitude was reinforced after the attempt on Saleh's life when explosive devices were placed in the palace mosque more than a week ago, both U.S. and Yemeni officials say.

The U.S. forces are also taking advantage of the fact that more al-Qaida operatives are exposing themselves as they move from their hideouts across the country to command troops challenging the Saleh regime.

The chaos has also led to arrests of al-Qaida operatives by Yemeni forces, and those operatives are talking under joint U.S.-Yemeni interrogation, providing key information on al-Qaida operations and locations, U.S. officials said.

Targeting a U.S.-born radical
That intelligence led to the best opportunity in more than a year to hit U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in early May. But a host of technical difficulties meant three separate attempts, by two types of unmanned armed drone-craft and war planes all failed, prompting some grousing among intelligence agencies that CIA-led strikes might net better results.

But the CIA has neither the drones nor the personnel to take the lead in the operation at present, at a crucial time in the fight against the AQAP organization, two officials say.

U.S. officials say the U.S. is trying to take advantage of the al-Qaida attempt to overthrow the Saleh government. Doing so has only exposed more of its operatives to U.S. intelligence, U.S. officials say, enabling them to be targeted.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had long urged the group to keep Yemen as a haven from which to launch attacks against the United States, while AQAP leaders argued that they should overthrow with Yemeni government. A record of that debate between bin Laden and the Yemeni al-Qaida leadership fond among the records at the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces May 2.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos

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