SANAA, Yemen, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Three days after U.S. Navy SEALs assassinated Osama bin Laden in May, the Americans mounted a major air operation in Yemen to kill a U.S.-born Muslim cleric they've branded one of al-Qaida's most dangerous leaders.
Anwar al-Awlaki just escaped the missiles fired from several U.S. aircraft but the operation marked a significant escalation in the secret war against the jihadists in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Awlaki's importance as a target can be measured by the forces sent to eliminate him: U.S. Marine Corps Harrier fighters, a Special Operations aircraft armed with short-range Griffin air-to-ground missiles and a Predator unmanned aerial vehicles carrying AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
The multi-aircraft strike May 5, during which U.S. fliers chased a pickup truck supposedly carrying Awlaki across rocky terrain, was part of a significant escalation in the largely secret U.S. campaign against AQAP, currently deemed the most dangerous jihadist group on the planet.
"This marks a major escalation in Washington's fight against the group, which is widely considered the most threatening to the U.S. homeland of all al-Qaida's affiliate," observed IPS Washington analyst Jim Lobe.
The intensification of covert operations mounted by the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA underline how U.S. President Barack Obama, while scaling down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is cranking up secret wars, not just in Yemen but also in Somalia across the Gulf of Aden.
The Americans conducted their first known attack in Somalia June 23 using UAVs armed with supersonic, armor-piercing Hellfire missiles. The target was a camp used by al-Shabaab, an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida and designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2008.
This means the Americans are conducting clandestine airstrikes in six countries, a list that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Indications are that Washington also plans to turn up the heat on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadist's North African branch, as well.
The May 5 attempt to kill Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who has been involved in at least three plots against the United States over the last two years, failed but only just.
Awlaki, AQAP's ideologue and a key recruiter, remains a marked man as the Americans step up another clandestine conflict.
U.S. operations in Yemen are unlikely to come under congressional scrutiny, as the Arab country teeters on the brink of civil war after a six-month uprising against longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, a flawed ally of the Americans who has frequently had dealings with the Islamists to stay in power.
In Yemen, security officials in Sanaa say there was a sharp intensification of remote-control UAV strikes in the first week of May, mostly targeting oil-rich Shabwa province east of Sanaa.
There were more than 18 in the first three weeks of June, with some 140 people killed.
Six of these strikes were in Abyan province in the south, on the Arabian Sea, where AQAP has flourished. Among the fatalities were longtime Yemeni jihadists Ali Abdullah Naji al Harithi, a senior operative, and Ammar Abadah Nasser al-Waeli, described as a key arms dealer.
The two men, veterans of the Iraq War, were killed June 13 in an airstrike on AQAP-held districts of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province.
Officially, the Americans say that it's only in recent weeks that systematic secret operations against AQAP have got going. But such operations have been under way for at least two years.
This underlines how Obama's administration has increasingly come to rely on covert counter-terrorism operations even as it withdraws U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This, critics say, is a template for how undeclared wars involving U.S. forces will be waged in the future, increasingly secret and free of congressional oversight.
"The important difference between Obama's wars in Pakistan and Yemen and his war in Libya is not in the level of hostilities or security interests, but rather in the ability to call one kind of war secret and another kind public," observed John Glaser of Antiwar.com, a Washington Web site.
"This realization, coupled with the cutting-edge technology that enables such shadow wars, carries dire prospects for the future."