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Where the Drones Are
Mapping the launch pads for Obama's secret wars.
Update, February 6, 2013: National Security Advisor John Brennan’s confirmation hearing for CIA director on Feb. 7, 2013 has revived criticism of the targeted killing program he helped institute. On Feb. 5, the Washington Post and New York Times revealed that the United States uses an airfield in Saudi Arabia as a base for unmanned aerial vehicles conducting surveillance and combat missions — a fact first reported by the Times of London, but previously unacknowledged in the U.S. media.
The biggest revelation about the base is not that it exists, per se — as Micah Zenko and Emma Welch note here, it’s hardly the only U.S. drone base, and not even the only drone base on the Arabian Peninsula — but that it exists in Saudi Arabia. The presence of U.S. forces has long been a point of contention with Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative population, many of whom see Americans (and particularly non-Muslims) under arms in their country as a desecration of the holy sites in the kingdom, a grievance cited frequently by terrorists promoting violence against the United States, including Osama bin Laden. Brennan was reportedly instrumental in negotiating U.S. access for the airfield in Saudi Arabia, where he was previously a CIA station chief. Construction seems to have taken place in 2010, and it was from this base that the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011 was launched, according to the New York Times‘ account.
Though the targeted killing program remains shrouded in secrecy, the Saudi base is the latest instrument of the program leak to the public. Here is the rest of what we know about America’s secret network of drone bases.
* * *
Tuesday’s New York Times features a blockbuster story, based on interviews with some three dozen current and former Obama administration officials, about the White House decision-making process behind the highly controversial U.S. policy of targeted killings. In it, we learn that while there are near-weekly interagency meetings with the 100 or so officials who compile the “kill list,” President Barack Obama is intimately involved in individual targeting decisions and most of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 suspected militants or terrorists killed by the United States outside the battlefield have died via drone strikes.
But Obama’s policy of killing by remote control is by no means new. Over the last decade, America’s overseas use of drones has expanded exponentially in scope, location, and frequency. Beyond their use across the battlefields of Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, U.S. drones have been used to target suspected militants and terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as to conduct surveillance missions over Colombia, Haiti, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, the Philippines, Turkey, and beyond.
To maximize flight time over these countries, the U.S. military and the CIA require a network of geographically dispersed air bases and the explicit support of host nations. Stationed at these bases are the drones and what’s known as the “launch recovery element” — the personnel who control the drones during take-off and landing, load and unload munitions, and provide routine maintenance. Many drones are based at long-established airfields in host countries that are quietly expanded and modernized by American engineers.
The countries that are willing to host U.S. drone operations have shifted as their political sensitivities have evolved. While the United States lost access to both Iraq and Pakistan in 2011, other host nations are more tolerant, albeit more evasive. For instance, a remote CIA airstrip in the Persian Gulf was reportedly completed in September, although the country remains publicly unidentified.
Given the politically sensitive nature of stationing U.S. government personnel or private contractors to support drone operations in another country’s sovereign territory, it is impossible to identify and verify the complete architecture of air bases from which U.S. strike and spy drones fly. Many journalists and researchers have previously written about American drone bases, from which this piece benefitted tremendously. The 12 bases that appear below, scattered across three continents, are but a representative sample of drone bases around the world compiled through publicly available information. There are assuredly others, perhaps at Masirah Island Air Base in Oman or Socotra Island Air Field off the coast of Yemen. We welcome updates and corrections.
Location: Incirlik, Turkey
Coordinates: 37, 35.26
Last November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that four U.S. Predator drones would be deployed to Incirlik, a massive air base primarily used by U.S. and Turkish forces that serves as a staging point for regional air operations. (In general, four aircraft are required to provide around-the-clock surveillance over a particular area of interest — one airborne while the others take off, land, refuel, or undergo maintenance.) The four Predators are launched and recovered by 15 U.S. airmen from 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, while the Nevada-based contractor Battlespace Flight Services flies the drones. Real-time intelligence from the Predators is transmitted via satellite link to the combined intelligence fusion cell in Ankara. The cell, opened in November 2007 to process surveillance imagery from U.S. manned and unmanned systems flying over Iraq, is staffed by Turkish and U.S. military personnel working side by side to provide targeting information on suspected members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, for strikes by Turkish F-16s in Turkey or Northern Iraq. According to reports, on Dec. 28, a Predator provided video imagery of a caravan of suspected PKK militants near the Turkish border. After Turkish officers directed the drone to fly elsewhere, Turkish aircraft attacked the caravan with four sorties, reportedly killing 34 civilians.
Location: Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan
Coordinates: 34.40, 70.50
Both the U.S. Air Force and the CIA use Jalalabad Airfield as a launching pad for their fleets of Predator and Reaper drones. In August 2009, the New York Times reported, “Officials said the CIA now conducted most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly.” In late 2011, when the Pakistani government kicked the remaining U.S. drones and their support personnel out of Shamsi air base, they were reportedly relocated to Jalalabad.
Location: Khost Airfield, Afghanistan
Coordinates: 33.33, 69.95
Located adjacent to the western border of Pakistan, Khost — also known as Forward Operating Base Chapman — is under the operational command of the CIA. Khost houses CIA officers, operatives, and analysts who collect, assess, and interpret intelligence information as well as select suspected militants as targets. Because of its location in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan, Khost also serves as a recruitment center for informants. It is perhaps best known as the site of a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of seven Americans on Dec. 30, 2009 — the deadliest day for the CIA since the 1983 bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. After the attack, the CIA retaliated swiftly with 11 attacks that killed nearly 100 suspected militants, marking one of the most intense periods of the drone program thus far.
Location: Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan
Coordinates: 31.50, 65.85
Kandahar Airfield is one of the largest bases in Afghanistan. Run by the U.S. military, it serves as a major base for both surveillance and strike drone operations in Afghanistan, as well as intermittently into Pakistan to pursue suspected militants. The U.S. Air Force also shares some of the surveillance footage with Islamabad. It is also home to the RQ-170 Sentinel — nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar” — an advanced surveillance drone that reportedly was used to monitor the Abbottabad compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was ultimately killed.
Location: Shindand Airfield, Afghanistan
Coordinates: 33.39, 62.26
On Nov. 29, 2011, a CIA-controlled RQ-170 Sentinel drone flying out of the Shindad base crashed 140 miles inside Iran. (The United States began flying drones over Iran from Iraq as early as April 2004.) Although Iranian officials claimed to have downed the drone through electronic warfare, U.S. officials countered that the drone had suffered from a technical malfunction. Before the incident, the Sentinel had reportedly flown undetected over Iran for three years, making hundreds of sorties over dozens of suspected nuclear weapons sites up to 600 miles into the country. U.S. officials claim that Sentinel surveillance flights over Iran have continued despite the well-publicized crash.
Location: Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar
Coordinates: 25.12, 51.32
Al-Udeid features the longest and most advanced runways in the Middle East, serves as a major transshipment site for American troops and resources headed to Afghanistan, and also hosts the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), which relocated from Saudi Arabia in 2003. The airbase serves as a drone operations command and control center throughout the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, for the U.S. Air Force, which through CAOC manages day-to-day joint air operations. Lawyers are stationed at Al-Udeid 24 hours a day to approve drone strikes carried about by the U.S. military.
Location: Zamboanga, Philippines
Coordinates: 6.92, 122.06
The Philippine government reportedly allows the United States to fly unmanned surveillance drones to monitor militants from the al Qaeda-linked group Abu Sayyaf on the island Mindanao. The most active site is in Zamboanga, one of the locations where the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines is based. U.S. drones are said to have provided the location of prominent Abu Sayyaf militants that were subsequently killed in an air strike carried out by the Philippines Air Force in February 2012.
Location: Al-Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates
Coordinates: 24.25, 54.55
In January 2002, the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) was deployed to Al-Dharfa to support operations in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. At the time, there were only 300 American servicemembers on the base. According to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, by September 2007 there were 1,300 Air Force personnel at Al-Dhafra. The 380th AEW also brought manned U-2 spy planes and the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk to the base. In 2005, an anonymous Air Force official stated, “There is a major Global Hawk operating base being built in the UAE.” According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, in June 2010 there were four Global Hawks at Al-Dhafra; by June 2011, there were six (five Air Force and one Navy). More recently, the United States has begun deploying F-22s, its advanced stealth fighter. According to Matthew Aid’s book Intel Wars, Global Hawks operating out of Al-Dhafra “fly daily [signals intelligence] and imagery collection missions along Iran’s borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and along Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline.”
Location: Al-Anad Air Base, Yemen
Coordinates: 13.18, 44.76
In the heart of the Lahij province in southern Yemen, the U.S. military works directly with Yemeni forces to monitor, target, and kill suspected militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the global jihadist group. The close cooperation between the United States and Yemen was brought to light in a confidential cable published by WikiLeaks, which quoted then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” U.S. drones often provide surveillance information to Yemeni forces to carry out assaults, as well as to launch airstrikes. According to the Long War Journal, the United States has conducted 21 airstrikes in the first five months of 2012, more than double the number in all of 2011.
Location: Arba Minch, Ethiopia
Coordinates: 6.04, 37.59
In January 2007, the U.S. Air Force carried out at least two attacks with AC-130 gunships against suspected Islamic militants in Somalia from a base in Ethiopia. After reports emerged with details of the attacks, the Ethiopian government expelled the U.S. military from that base. In October 2011, after four years of negotiations, the U.S. military was permitted to reestablish a presence in Ethiopia, with Reaper drones being flown out of the Arba Minch airfield for surveillance missions over Somalia.
Location: Camp Lemonier, Djibouti
Coordinates: 11.54, 43.15
Six days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a Memorandum of Notification that authorized the CIA to kill a “high-value target list” of 24 al-Qaeda leaders. Included on this list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, mastermind of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. On Nov. 3, 2002, a Predator drone killed Harithi and six others in Yemen, marking the first targeted killing outside of a battlefield. The drone reportedly originated and was controlled from Camp Lemonier. The CIA has also flown drones launched from Djibouti over Somalia, targeting militants affiliated with al Qaeda. Camp Lemonier has been the home of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa since 2003, and reportedly houses 3,500 U.S. personnel from various military and civilian agencies.
Location: Mahe, Seychelles
Coordinates: -4.6700823, 55.5146885
In 2011, the U.S. military reopened a base on the island nation of Seychelles — an archipelago roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. — for a small fleet of armed MQ-9 Reaper drones. Although the Seychelles had previously served as a base for surveillance drones to track pirates in the Indian Ocean, classified U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that drones have also carried out strike missions against al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. According to another cable, Seychelles President James Michel requested — twice — that the inaugural launch of U.S. drones be documented with a photo-op or celebration. U.S. drone operations from the Seychelles have continued, as demonstrated by a MQ-9 Reaper crashing into the Indian Ocean after skidding off the runway in December 2011.
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.