On September 6, 2009, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, met with Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to discuss the rising influence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). "President Saleh pledged unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations," according to a secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. While the Obama administration was insisting publicly that its role in Yemen was limited to training the country’s military forces—the same claim it made about Pakistan—US Special Operations forces were conducting offensive operations in Yemen, including airstrikes, and conspiring with Yemen’s president and other leaders to cover up the US role.
On December 17, 2009, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in Yemen at al-Majalah, Abyan, was hit by a cruise missile, killing forty-one people. According to an investigation by the Yemeni Parliament, fourteen women and twenty-one children were among the dead, along with fourteen alleged Al Qaeda fighters. A week later another airstrike hit another village in Yemen.
Amnesty International released photographs from one of the strikes, revealing remnants of US cluster munitions and the Tomahawk cruise missiles used to deliver them. At the time, the Pentagon refused to comment, directing all inquiries to Yemen’s government, which released a statement on December 24 taking credit for both airstrikes, saying in a press release, "Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault" and "carried out simultaneous raids killing and detaining militants."
US diplomatic cables now reveal that both strikes were conducted by the US military under orders from Gen. David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command (Centcom). "We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," President Saleh told Petraeus during a meeting in early January 2010, according to one cable. Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi then boasted that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament "that the bombs…were American-made but deployed by" Yemen. According to US Special Operations sources, US teams also conduct targeted killing operations and raids inside Yemen.
The WikiLeaks information partially corroborates what sources told The Nation in June about how the Obama administration was expanding the footprint of covert actions conducted by the military, not the CIA, to more than seventy-five countries. The frontline battles, the sources alleged, were in Yemen and Somalia. "In both those places, there are ongoing unilateral actions," said a special operations source, adding that they do "a lot in Pakistan too."
The WikiLeaks cables also reveal that despite denials by US officials spanning more than a year, US Special Operations forces have been conducting offensive operations in Pakistan, helping direct US drone strikes and conducting joint operations with Pakistani troops against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in North and South Waziristan and elsewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. According to an October 9, 2009, cable classified by Anne Patterson, then the US ambassador to Pakistan, the operations were conducted by US Special Operations forces and coordinated with the US Office of the Defense Representative in Pakistan. A Special Operations source told The Nation that the US forces described in the cable as "SOC(FWD)-PAK" were "forward operating troops" from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most elite force in the US military, made up of Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers.