NEW YORK The United States military has expanded its clandestine intelligence-gathering activities in the countries of Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, The New York Times reported on Monday. The secret directive, signed in September last, by US Gen David Petraeus, authorises sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations to undertake reconnaissance and build ties with local forces, the newspaper reported. While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, US officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy al-Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to prepare the environment for future attacks by American or local military forces, the report said. But some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks. Many in the military are concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured. A seven-page directive, obtained by The New York Times, appears to authorise specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the countrys nuclear programme or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive, the report said. The newspaper said the directive also appeared to authorise specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about its nuclear programme or identify dissident groups that might be useful for any future military offensive. The Obama administration insists that for the moment, it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike, it said. The Defence Department cant be caught flat-footed, said one Pentagon official with knowledge of Gen Petraeuss order. Some of the covert military operations that followed the secret order have been reported. These include a September 2009 attack by helicopter-borne Special Operations Forces on a car carrying one of east Africas most wanted al Qaeda militants, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Central Command has been positioning Reaper drones at a base in the Horn of Africa. Officials said the drones can be used against militants in Yemen and Somalia, and even against pirates who attack ships traversing the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. They (the drones) are part of it but it is much broader than that, one US official said of the order. In February, Defence Secretary Robert Gates authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen for fiscal 2010, up from $67 million last year. Officials said the money would be used in part to bolster Yemens special operations forces to lead an offensive targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a US passenger plane on Christmas Day. The group has emerged as one of al Qaedas most active affiliates, and the Obama administration recently took the extraordinary step of authorizing the CIA to kill a leading figure linked to the group American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.