Al-Harthi was believed by Western and Yemeni authorities to be a close friend of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda's key operative in Yemen. Washington believes he orchestrated the suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 Americans in October 2000. Both governments suspect that at the time of his death, he was involved in planning further attacks.
Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh has unambiguously chosen Washington's side in its war with al-Qaeda, arresting scores of al-Qaeda suspects even, reportedly, bin Laden's youngest wife, 20-year-old Amal al-Saddah. But despite the crackdown, al-Qaeda elements have found support among tribal chieftains in more remote parts of Yemen, where they have taken shelter, and the government's ability to act against them has been limited. Indeed, it is the very weakness of the Yemeni state that makes it such an attractive base for bin Laden's men.
The U.S. has previously sent help in the form of equipment and training for Yemeni forces to take on extremists in the tribal areas, but with mixed results. Earlier this year, in raid on a village where al-Harthi and others were seeking shelter, government troops were repelled in a fierce firefight that killed 18 Yemeni soldiers and allowed the al-Qaeda men to escape. This time, when U.S. intelligence got al-Hathi in their sights, they chose to do the job by remote.
Hellfire missiles fired from Predator aircraft became a familiar part of the effort in Afghanistan to target such key leaders as bin Laden himself and Taliban chief Mullah Omar with limited success. The idea of targeting terrorist quarry from the skies far beyond the open battlefields of Afghanistan is, of course, a different proposition. And it's unlikely to become a norm. That's because it only really becomes feasible in situations where the sovereign power is either both hostile to the U.S. and unable to police its own airspace (as was the case in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan), or else where it is unable to enforce its own writ, as in Yemen and one or two other weak states such as Somalia. If U.S. intelligence had discovered al-Harthi hiding out in Pakistan rather than Yemen, it would have been more likely to send rely on the local security forces to roll him up.
Yemen has it's own reasons for wanting to rid itself of al-Qaeda. The country sent thousands of young men to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and hundreds more drifted over there in the 1990s and became disciples of bin Laden. That left Yemen with one of the Arab world's largest concentrations of al-Qaeda supporters, which threatens President Saleh's plans to strengthen ties with the West. Recent suspected al-Qaeda operations in Yemen have included attacks on a French oil tanker and a U.S. oil company, underscoring the terrorist threat to Yemen's own economic development. But cooperation with the U.S. has angered local Islamists and prompted attacks on Yemeni security officials, and the al-Harthi assassination may make Yemen's government more of a target for al-Qaeda.
Some Americans may question the evidentiary standards used to determine just who is eligible for summary execution-by-drone, but such qualms are likely to be muted by claims that the Yemen strike eliminated an active al-Qaeda kingpin. The danger arises when such operations go awry, particularly on the basis of bad intelligence as has happened more than once in air strikes over Afghanistan. Positively identifying suspects usually requires human intelligence input from the ground, and therein lies considerable room for both mistakes and manipulation. Such mistakes cost the U.S. dearly, and officials are likely to demand extra precautions when striking this far from any battlefield.
Now that al-Qaeda has decentralized its operations around the globe, it's likely that the war against the network will assume an increasingly covert nature, involving intelligence cooperation even with states such as Syria, which remains on the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism and targeted strikes against al-Qaeda suspects rather than major conventional military offensives. Having scaled back dramatically in the decade following the Cold War, U.S. intelligence services began beefing up their covert operations capability in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the elimination of al-Harthi in Yemen may be a sign that such capability is now being aggressively deployed.