WASHINGTON - U.S. officials say American forces launched an air strike against al-Qaeda targets in southern Yemen last week to keep al-Qaeda's Yemeni offshoot from taking advantage of the unrest there.
The officials said Thursday the strike by U.S. war planes last Friday killed a midlevel al-Qaeda operative named Abu Ali al-Harithi and other followers.
It followed a May 5 drone strike that just missed al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, due to a technical malfunction, two U.S. officials said.
Officials said neither strike was part of any change in policy or intentional increase in counterterrorist operations, but they were launched because of intelligence leading to the targets.
"These operations have not been stepped up," one official said. "They are dependent on the availability of the right information at the right time."
While not confirming the strike, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said his agency and elite U.S. special operators were continuing to work with the Yemeni government to keep the extremists at bay, despite the ongoing revolt aimed at ousting President Ali Abdullah Saleh. U.S. officials said al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was trying to exploit the situation to carry out further attacks.
The group has been behind several recent terror attacks aimed at the United States, including last year's plot to put explosive devices on U.S.-bound cargo planes and the attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.
"While obviously it's . . . a scary and uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism, we're still very much continuing our operations," Panetta said at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to become defense secretary.
Panetta added that his officers were working together with the military's elite and ultrasecret counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, in Yemen and other areas where al-Qaeda is active.
The JSOC is officially described as a training organization, with its terror-fighting role classified. Its operators, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, have been working with Yemeni military and counterterror forces for years, fostering their ability to fight homegrown extremists, U.S. officials say.
A JSOC helicopter raid killed al-Qaeda extremist Saleh Ali Nabhan in Somalia, who was thought to have helped plan the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.