June 16, 2011
By Kimberly Dozier
WASHINGTON: Preparing for a worst-case scenario in Yemen, the United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Gulf region to target Al-Qaeda militants there, in case anti-American factions win the current power struggle and shut American forces out, the Associated Press has learned.
The White House has already increased the numbers of CIA officers based in Yemen, in anticipation of that very possibility. And it has stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to a rushed eight months.
The Associated Press has withheld the exact location of the base at the request of U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified.
The current campaign is run by a military counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, with the CIA providing intelligence support. JSOC forces have been allowed by the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh to conduct limited strikes there since 2009. Saleh loyalists have recently allowed expanded strikes by U.S. armed drones and even war planes against Al-Qaeda targets who are taking advantage of civil unrest to grab power and territory in the country.
But the CIA would not confirm the White House decision to build the CIA base or expand the agency’s operations in Yemen.
The new base suggests a long-term U.S. commitment to fighting Al-Qaeda in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit, though not public, Pakistani government approval.
Drones like Reapers and Predators are unmanned aircraft that can be flown from remote locations and hover over a target before firing a missile.
Yemeni officials have indicated their preference toward drones, versus allowing U.S. counterterror strike teams on Yemeni soil, saying they are less apt to incense the local population. However, the new base would enable continued operations without Yemeni approval.
If the Yemenis halt cooperation with U.S. counterterrorist forces that would also likely mean a shift to putting the CIA in charge of the Al-Qaeda hunting mission in Yemen, senior U.S. officials said.
While that policy debate plays out in Washington, U.S. special operations forces based just outside Yemen are taking aim almost daily at a greater array of targets that have been flushed into view by the unrest.
U.S. forces have stepped up their targeting as well, because of the besieged Yemeni government’s new willingness to allow U.S. forces to use all tools available – from armed drones to war planes – against Al-Qaeda as a way to stay in power, the U.S. officials said.
With Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula essentially in control of large swaths of Yemeni territory, the Yemeni government now hopes that American targeting will remove some of the enemies threatening the Saleh regime. That new target-at-will attitude was reinforced after the attempt on Saleh’s life, both U.S. and Yemeni officials say.