By Brian Ross, Richard Esposito, Matthew Cole, Luis Martinez and Kirit Radia
On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.
One of the targeted sites was a suspected al Qaeda training camp north of the capitol, Sanaa, and the second target was a location where officials said "an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned."
The Yemen attacks by the U.S. military represent a major escalation of the Obama administration's campaign against al Qaeda.
In his speech about added troops for Afghanistan earlier this month, President Obama made a brief reference to Yemen, saying, "Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold -- whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere -- they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships."
Until tonight, American officials had hedged about any U.S. role in the strikes against Yemen and news reports from Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force.
President Obama placed a call after the strikes to "congratulate" the President of Yemen, Ali Abdallah Salih, on his efforts against al Qaeda, according to White House officials.
A Yemeni official at the country's embassy in Washington insisted to ABC News Friday that the Thursday attacks were "planned and executed" by the Yemen government and police.
Along with the two U.S. cruise missile attacks, Yemen security forces carried out raids in three separate locations. As many as 120 people were killed in the three raids, according to reports from Yemen, and opposition leaders said many of the dead were innocent civilians.
American officials said the missile strikes were intended to disrupt a growing threat from the al Qaeda branch in Yemen, which claims to coordinate terror attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The al Qaeda presence in Yemen has been steadily growing in the last two years. "Al Qaeda generally has been pushed into these ungoverned areas, whether it is the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area [or Yemen]," said Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N.'s Taliban al-Qaeda Sancitions Monitoring Committee. "I think many of the key people have moved to Yemen."
The U.S. embassy was attacked by suspected al Qaeda gunmen last year.
And the presumed leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Qaaim al-Raymi, has frequently appeared on internet videos, offering an alternative to the training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"If they can go to Yemen just as easily or easier and get training there and come out again," said Barrett, "all your efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a waste of time."
Qaaim al-Raymi was considered a prime target of the attack Thursday but was reported to have escaped the attack. However, U.S. officials believe one of his top deputies may have been killed.