WASHINGTON — Despite protests from other countries, the United States is expanding a top-secret effort to kill suspected terrorists with drone-fired missiles as it pursues an increasingly decentralized Al Qaeda, U.S. officials say.
The CIA's failed Jan. 13 attempt to assassinate Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri in Pakistan was the latest strike in the "targeted killing" program, a highly classified initiative that officials say has broadened as the network splintered and fled Afghanistan.
The strike against Zawahiri reportedly killed as many as 18 civilians, many of them women and children, and triggered protests in Pakistan. Similar U.S. attacks using unmanned Predator aircraft equipped with Hellfire missiles have angered citizens and political leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
Little is known about the targeted-killing program. The Bush administration has refused to discuss how many strikes it has made, how many people have died, or how it chooses targets. No U.S. officials were willing to speak about it on the record because the program is classified.
Several U.S. officials confirmed at least 19 occasions since Sept. 11 on which Predators successfully fired Hellfire missiles on terrorist suspects overseas, including 10 in Iraq in one month last year. The Predator strikes have killed at least four senior Al Qaeda leaders, but also many civilians, and it is not known how many times they missed their targets.
Critics of the program dispute its legality under U.S. and international law, and say it is administered by the CIA with little oversight. U.S. intelligence officials insist it is one of their most tightly regulated, carefully vetted programs.
Lee Strickland, a former CIA counsel who retired in 2004 from the agency's Senior Intelligence Service, confirmed that the Predator program had grown to keep pace with the spread of Al Qaeda commanders. The CIA believes they are branching out to gain recruits, financing and influence.
Many groups of Islamic militants are believed to be operating in lawless pockets of the Middle East, Asia and Africa where it is perilous for U.S. troops to try to capture them, and difficult to discern the leaders.
"Paradoxically, as a result of our success the target has become even more decentralized, even more diffused and presents a more difficult target -- no question about that," said Strickland, now director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland.
"It's clear that the U.S. is prepared to use and deploy these weapons in a fairly wide theater," he said.
Current and former intelligence officials said they could not disclose which countries could be subject to Predator strikes. But the presence of Al Qaeda or its affiliates has been documented in dozens of nations, including Somalia, Morocco and Indonesia.
High-ranking U.S. and allied counter-terrorism officials said the program's expansion was not merely geographic. They said it had grown from targeting a small number of senior Al Qaeda commanders after the Sept. 11 attacks to a more loosely defined effort to kill possibly scores of suspected terrorists, depending on where they were found and what they were doing.
"We have the plans in place to do them globally," said a former counter-terrorism official who worked at the CIA and State Department, which coordinates such efforts with other governments.
"In most cases, we need the approval of the host country to do them. However, there are a few countries where the president has decided that we can whack someone without the approval or knowledge of the host government."
The CIA and the Pentagon have deployed at least several dozen of the Predator drones throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and along the borders of Pakistan, U.S. officials confirmed. The CIA also has sent the remote-controlled aircraft into the skies over Yemen and some other countries believed to be Al Qaeda havens, particularly those without a strong government or military with which the United States can work in tandem, a current U.S. counter-terrorism official told The Times.
Such incursions are highly sensitive because they could violate the sovereignty of those nations and anger U.S. allies, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, is a slender craft, 27 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan. It makes a clearly audible buzzing sound, and can hover above a target for many hours and fly as low as 15,000 feet to get good reconnaissance footage. They are often operated by CIA or Pentagon officials at computer consoles in the United States.
The drones were designed for surveillance and have been used for that purpose since at least the mid-1990s, beginning with the conflict in the Balkans. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush ordered a rapid escalation of a project to arm the Predators with missiles, an effort that had been mired in bureaucratic squabbles and technical glitches.