U.S. strike had Yemen backing

Walter Pincus

Washington Post

Nov. 6, 2002 12:00 AM

The U.S. Predator missile attack that killed six suspected al-Qaida terrorists traveling in a car in Yemen on Sunday was done with the cooperation and approval of that country's leadership, U.S. sources said Tuesday.

An administration official said the CIA-controlled Predator was being operated under a presidential finding that authorized covert actions by the agency against Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. The official also said that although civilians were killed in the attack it was considered a military action and not an assassination.

Nevertheless, the attack has touched off a new debate on whether the United States, with or without the assistance of friendly foreign governments, should attack terrorists outside military zones.

Current and former government officials acknowledged that the Yemen attack illustrates that the war on terrorism requires new rules for fighting. The sources emphasized that the Bush administration expects future attacks will be done cooperatively, as was this one, if sometimes secretly.

White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The president has said very plainly to the American people that this is a war in which . . . sometimes there are going to be things that are done that the American people may never know about."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher declined to comment on any U.S. role in the attack. Asked how the Yemen action squares with past Washington opposition to Israeli "targeted killing" of Palestinians, Boucher said, "If you look back at what we have said about targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context, you will find that the reasons we have given do not necessarily apply in other circumstances."

The high-altitude Predator fired a missile that obliterated the car and the six passengers. The administration official knowledgeable about the attack said the extraordinary damage that saw the vehicle blown up and the individuals burned almost beyond recognition was caused by an "unexplained secondary explosion," which indicated the travelers were carrying arms, explosives or extra gasoline.

Yemeni officials privately told reporters in that country how their intelligence agents were watching and communicating to U.S. intelligence the movements of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, the top al-Qaida operative who was the prime target in the attack. Officially, the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih in Sana'a has announced only that it is investigating the cause of the explosion that killed the terrorists, according to the country's official news service.

In the wake of the attack, however, Salih had a message read over Yemen national television that asked those who had joined bin Laden's network to come forward to avoid what happened to Harethi. "We call on everyone from among our countrymen who have been entangled in membership of the al-Qaida organization to repent . . . and renounce all means of violence," Salih's statement said.

Although other senior officials refused to discuss the Yemen attack on the record, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appeared on CNN on Tuesday and called it "a very successful tactical operation." He said the attack not only had "gotten rid of somebody dangerous" but had "imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures."

He added, "We have just got to keep the pressure on everywhere we're able to."

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