CIA using Saudi base for drone assassinations in Yemen

Disclosure comes as architect of programme, John Brennan, prepares for Senate confirmation hearing to become CIA director

The CIA is secretly using an airbase in Saudi Arabia to conduct its controversial drone assassination campaign in neighbouring Yemen, according to reports in the US media.

Neither the Saudi government nor the country's media have responded to the reports revealing that the drones that killed the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son in September 2011 and Said al-Shehri, a senior al-Qaida commander who died from his injuries last month, were launched from the unnamed base.

Iranian state media highlighted the story, which is also likely to be seized upon by jihadi groups. Saudi Arabia has previously publicly denied co-operating with the US to target al-Qaida in Yemen. Evidence of Saudi involvement risks complicating its relationship with the government in Sana'a and with Yemeni tribal leaders who control large parts of the country.

John Brennan Appears On Fox News Sunday
John Brennan. Photograph: Getty Images Photograph: Handout/Getty Images

Disclosure of the Saudi co-operation comes the day before the architect of the drone programme, John Brennan, appears before the US Senate for a confirmation hearing to become the CIA director.

The drone issue is sensitive in Saudi Arabia because of the unpopularity of US military bases, which were thought to have been largely removed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the continued presence of US troops after the 1991 Gulf war was one of the stated motivations behind al-Qaida's 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Khobar Towers bombing five years earlier.

The date of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania was eight years to the day after US troops were first sent to the kingdom. Osama bin Laden interpreted the prophet Muhammad as banning the "permanent presence of infidels in Arabia".

The last significant US military presence was at the King Sultan airbase in Khobar in the eastern province. The forces there were relocated to Qatar.

The revelation is unlikely to make significant waves inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has no independent media but there is no sympathy for the jihadis of al-Qaida targeted in Yemen. Saudi Arabia conducted its own successful campaign against al-Qaida, in effect destroying it by 2004. Its remnants moved to Yemen and formed al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), perhaps the most active of the group's "franchises".

"These planes are unmanned so there will not be the same impact as when American planes were flying from the Prince Sultan base," Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai told the Guardian. "No one will say that the Americans are occupying the country.

"I don't think people care about this any more. Generally it is accepted in the region that the planes operated by the Americans are not doing a bad job taking out al-Qaida leaders. There is no sympathy with al-Qaida except a very small minority. Even in Yemen – apart from the collateral damage where civilians lose their life – there is no objection to this type of operation.

"It has been rumoured for years that drones were taking off from the Arabian peninsula so this is not shocking news except for the Iranians and jihadis. Otherwise it is not going register in public opinion."

US government requests to American media to refrain from disclosing the location of the CIA base were made in part because it could potentially damage counter-terrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

Shehri, deputy leader of AQAP, died last month of injuries sustained during a US drone strike in 2012.


Ian Black, Middle East editor

The GuardianTramp

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