U.S. Drone Base in Saudi Arabia Revealed

by Patrick Brennan

In anticipation of the confirmation hearings for John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee for director of the CIA, the existence of a secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia has been revealed. This base was established about two years ago, and was apparently made known to the American media about one year ago. From the Washington Post’s story on what Brennan’s nomination has already revealed:

The Obama administration’s targeted-killing program has relied on a growing constellation of drone bases operated by the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. The only strike intentionally targeting a U.S. citizen, a 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.

The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known. Brennan, who previously served as the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom.

The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the specific location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

Marc Thiessen of AEI adds the revelation of this base to his “top ten list of Obamaleaks” which Brennan should have to explain in his confirmation hearings. Brennan has been intimately involved in the U.S.’s drone program from the beginning (the CIA part of it, that is), and there have been a couple of laughable newspaper stories describing how his sheer moral rectitude and Catholic piety mean we shouldn’t worry about leaving the deadly decisions of the drone program to a small cadre of Obama-administration officials. In November, Gregory Johnsen, author of a book on the U.S. and Yemen’s war on al-Qaeda, wrote an op-ed for the Times explaining why he thought Brennan’s involvement in the drone program against al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula made him “the wrong man for the CIA.”

Our permanent drone presence in Saudi Arabia is interesting for a few reasons: It seems to suggest particularly avid Saudi support for the U.S.’s efforts against al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen. The general security of Yemen is something with which the Americans and Saudis have been concerned for a long time, but the placement of a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia, even a secret and presumably remote one, is still a bit surprising. #more#There were tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed at airbases in Saudi Arabia from the First Gulf War until just after the invasion of Iraq (they moved to Qatar), but it was hardly a happy relationship. The Saudi royal family knew that the presence of American troops in Islam’s holiest land seriously rankled religious fundamentalists, and the presence of U.S. troops there was cited as justification for both the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 and the attacks of September 11. (There has been a publicly acknowledged U.S.-military presence in Saudi Arabia since our large-scale withdrawal in 2003, but it’s extremely small and provides security for U.S. training programs, rather than being an actual strategic presence.)

Moreover, the U.S. has a drone base in Djibouti, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, from which one assumes we have access to the parts of Yemen to which we’d like to deliver Hellfire packages — AQAP is mainly operational around the border between North and South Yemen (there are different religious rebels in the northern part of North Yemen) and the only other use for drones in Djibouti is our limited engagement in Somalia. In short, given that we don’t have to have a base in Saudi territory and our presence in Saudi Arabia is inconvenient for us and them, it seems safe to assume Saudi Arabia really likes our drone work in Yemen.

The Yemeni-Saudi relationship is interesting: They had a range of border disputes finally settled in the 1990s and 2000s, but Saudi Arabia has for the most part joined the U.S. in providing support for the security efforts of the Yemeni government (and before the country’s unification in 1990, North Yemen against Marxist South Yemen). There was one major hiccup in the U.S.’s and Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Yemen, when they declined to support the first Gulf War, seriously endangering Yemen’s relationship with its patrons (and the Gulf monarchies, too). But even then, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. viewed Yemen as a source of instability and a breeding ground for terrorism, and thus never really relented in their support, which has only increased with the declaration of the global War on Terror, and the rise of an al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen. President Saleh’s removal in 2012 deprived Yemen of someone who had been a competent manager of the various tribal conflicts, building something of a central government, political system, and security apparatus, so the U.S.’s support could be more crucial now than ever.

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