The US Central Intelligence Agency has been launching armed drones from a secret airbase in Saudi Arabia for the past two years, primarily to hit targets in neighboring Yemen.
The US news media has known about the base’s existence since September 2011 when it was used to assassinate American citizen and suspected al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, but did not disclose the information because of an “informal agreement” with the Obama administration to keep it secret.
Senior US officials expressed concern that disclosure could undermine cooperation with Saudi Arabia and ultimately prevent the US from waging the drone war in Yemen. But the New York Times revealed the story this week, breaking the informal agreement.
The drone war rests on very shaky legal grounds as it is. The Obama administration has staunchly refused to make public the official legal rationale for its targeted killing program, which contradicts international laws requiring an imminent threat to justify the use of force.
Human rights officials at the United Nations have launched an investigation into the Obama administration’s drone war and reports of high numbers of civilian casualties.
The expanding drone war in Yemen, which often kills civilians, does in fact cause blowback and help al-Qaeda recruitment – as attested to by numerous Yemen experts,investigative reporting on the ground, polling, testimony from Yemen activists, and the actual fact that recent bungled terrorist attacks aimed at the US have cited such drone attacks as motivating factors.
After another September drone strike that killed 13 civilians, a local Yemeni activist told CNN, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”
“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” a Yemeni villager named Mohammed told the Post. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”
But the secret US drone base in Saudi puts added weight to issues of blowback.
“Osama bin Laden began his jihad against the United States largely because he was incensed that American troops were stationed in his homeland, Saudi Arabia, proximate to Islamic holy sites,” writes The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, before citing extensive polling showing that millions of Muslims across the Arab world said their opinion of the US would significantly improve if it moved all military bases out of Saudi Arabia.
“In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, the United States announced that it would pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia, though some remain there,” Friedersdorf writes. “It would’ve been nice to publicly debate whether the strategic value of a drone base in Saudi Arabia outweighs the potential for blowback,” before the Obama administration secretly established the base two years ago.