U.S. counterterrorist forces will now be allowed to target individuals found to be plotting attacks on U.S. territory, even if U.S. intelligence cannot identify the person by name, two senior U.S. officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters.
Prior practice required militants to be identified as part of a lengthy legal vetting process. Now, tracking an individual in the act of commanding al-Qaida fighters or planning an attack on U.S. territory or American individuals can land the person on the shoot-to-kill list, officials said.
"What this means in practice is there are times when counterterrorism professionals can assess with high confidence someone is an AQAP leader, even if they can't tell us by name who that individual is," one of the officials said, referring to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The White House did not approve wider targeting of groups of al-Qaida foot soldiers, a practice sometimes employed by the CIA in Pakistan, and strikes will only be carried out with Yemeni government approval, officials said.
The new policy will widen the war against AQAP, Yemen's al-Qaida branch, which has gained territory in fighting against the Yemeni government. AQAP has become a top draw for foreign fighters, who used to travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan to fight. Special operations raids in Afghanistan and CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions - not to mention last year's U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden there - have made them less desirable destinations, U.S. officials say, whereas al-Qaida's Yemen branch is seen as gaining ground against a government that is allied with the Americans.
The past year of political turmoil in Yemen, since the start of revolts linked to last year's Arab Spring, is "making it harder for them (the Yemeni government) to take a focused effort against al-Qaida" one of the officials said. "So these are counterterrorism tools designed to protect U.S. interests and homeland."
The expanded strikes would not be used in support of the Yemeni government's fight against internal opponents, the official added.
Yemeni officials reached Thursday said they have not yet been briefed on the change but said Yemen's new President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has requested increased U.S. counterterrorist cooperation, seeking a new influx of U.S. military trainers and advisers, the Yemeni officials said.
Hadi also gave the green light to expanded CIA drone activity, in parallel with ongoing U.S. military strikes, one of the officials said.
The U.S. has carried out 23 airstrikes in Yemen since last May, with twelve of those strikes in 2012, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. counterterrorism and militant activity.