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Reports about an alleged CIA drone base targeting militants of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen appear contradictory. Some say that the US spy agency was trying to build a drone facility for surveillance and attack in Yemen itself similar to another on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, whereas other reports say the disorder in the country actually hamper CIA activities and may delay its plan for a drone facility for several months to come.
Still other reports say the base targeting Yemen is being built outside the country, in the Arab Gulf. Where? The base is reportedly at least eight months away from completion and plagued with logistics difficulties. Some pointed out to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as candidates for such an installation, unless the CIA expanded the existing American presence in Djibouti.
One of the purported benefits of expanding CIA drone operations in Yemen, according to these reports, is enabling the agency to operate more freely than the US military even if Saleh is replaced by a leader less tolerant of US counter-terrorist operations. They point out to a recent decision of President Obama to move the CIA-operated Predator and other unmanned aircraft into the region, following reports about AQAP’s engaging intensified struggle for control of southern Yemen and taking advantage of a growing power vacuum to create a stronghold near vital oil-shipping lanes.
Anyway, the idea that the CIA plans to build — or is building — a base inside Yemen to fly its drones, seems unlikely in the present situation. These operations can be performed from a neighbouring facility, as it had already occurred.
Actually, the first operations of drone attacks in Yemen started under the Bush administration. In November 2002, six Al Qaeda members travelling in a vehicle in Yemen were killed by a HELLFIRE missile fired by a CIA controlled Predator unmanned drone aircraft. Among those reported killed was Qaed Salim Sinan Al Harethi, a key suspect in the October 2000 attack in Yemen on the US destroyer Cole. The senior Al Qaeda leader in Yemen, Al Harethi, was riding in a car along with five other alleged terrorists. A missile, reportedly fired by a CIA unmanned aircraft, hit the vehicle about 170 kilometres east of Yemen’s capital Sanaa. All inside were killed.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a military think-tank in Washington, said then the drone had probably taken off from a short runway in Djibouti, across the Red Sea from Yemen, where there has been a steady build-up of US Special Forces in those months. But he said it was very likely the drone was actually flown and the missile fired by officers at CIA headquarters. “They are literally flying it like a normal aircraft,” he said. Several reports confirm that when the drones were used in Afghanistan or elsewhere, they were ‘flown’ from Langley.
For several months before the beginning of the protests in Yemen, numerous reports have indicated the Obama administration was contemplating how to properly increase assistance and intelligence cooperation with Yemen without overly militarising the US presence there and causing a backlash from the local population.
The idea that the CIA may increase its use of drones inside Yemen or place military units overseen by the Defence Department (JSOC) under its control, was not ruled out. Placing military units overseen by the Pentagon under CIA control is unusual but not unprecedented. Units from the Joint Special Operations Command have been temporarily transferred to the CIA in other countries, including Iraq, in recent years in order to get around restrictions placed on military operations.
In Yemen, the CIA target is still AQAP.
In January 2009, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants based in Yemen announced that Saudi militants had pledged allegiance to their leader and that the group would now operate under the banner of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This likely happened on the initiative of militants who fled Saudi Arabia along with Yemeni activists, after the defeat of the terrorist organisation out there. The first version of AQAP was largely dismantled and destroyed by Saudi security forces after a long and costly counter-terrorism campaign from 2003 through 2007.
In December 2009, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al Qirbi stated that there were probably around 200-300 Al Qaeda “operatives” in Yemen. In May 2010, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security echoed this assessment, stating that there were probably several hundred Al Qaeda members in Yemen. These estimates include only full-time professional terrorists and not supporters or sympathisers who might be brought into the organisation at a later time.
AQAP’s objective was seemingly to operate both within the Arabian Peninsula and internationally. Prior to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, reports pointed out to a possible coordination between AQAP and Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as with Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQAP’s targets are Saudi officials and US and Western interests in Yemen. The attempted assassination of Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud in August 2009 underscored the threat to the royal family. In 2010, AQAP leaders released a direct appeal to Saudi security and military personnel to turn their weapons on government officials and royal family members.
According to W. Andrew Terrill, “in early 2010, Yemen’s National Security Agency director stated that around 90 per cent of the Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen are Yemeni nationals, and only around 10 per cent foreigners.” But he believes this estimation is based on spurious information, “implying that relatively few Saudi members of Al Qaeda were able to reach Yemen after their leadership advised them to do so.” This estimate also suggests that “only a limited number of radicals have arrived from Pakistan, although other statements by the security forces indicated that both Saudi and Pakistani radicals in Yemen are a problem.”
Today, the situation in Yemen is so confused that all possibilities are wide open, either on the political or military sides. Many parties, AQAP included, may be tempted to increase their influence on the expenses of the unity of this country. The contradictory aspect of the reports about the CIA Drone base may be explained by the classified nature of this information. AQAP could be tempted to make a pre-emptive strike on such a base before its completion, if its location comes to be known.
The author, an expert on US-Middle EAst relations, is based in Paris