Senate hearings to confirm John Brennan as the Obama administration’s appointment to be director of the CIA brought to light a heretofore clandestine American military facility in Saudi Arabia near the kingdom’s border with Yemen. While journalistic and public attention rightly focused on extrajudicial executions of Yemenis and even American citizens, the new revelations suggest a larger covert Saudi-American war in Yemen. There’s almost certainly more to this story than what Saudi Arabia fails to confirm.
Information about the base was long withheld from the public by both the government and the media. NBC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post reported on February 5 and 6 that the US built a secret airfield in Saudi Arabia over two years ago, primarily as a staging ground for strikes in Yemen. Both flagship newspapers acknowledged keeping this fact under wraps in deference to the Obama administration’s request for secrecy on national security grounds. Reportedly, the first operation conducted from the base was the one that killed the Yemen-American preacher Anwar Nasir al-Awlaqi.
Bing aerial photographs from 2012 appear to show a facility in southeast Saudi Arabia, north of the Yemeni border and west of the Omani frontier, in the remote expanse of sand dunes called the Empty Quarter.
There also seem to be launching pads for unmanned Predator drones and/or Hellfire missiles at al-Anad Airbase near Aden. Al-Anad is an established installation on Yemen’s southern coast near the Bab al-Mandab, a crucial waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Now evidence has surfaced of yet another US base in the Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen, not far from the base in Saudi Arabia.
As more sleuths inspect more maps, we could learn of more military construction in the Peninsula, and of more Saudi engagement than has been acknowledged.
A reporter for the Guardian quoted journalism professor Jack Lule of Lehigh University, who called the media’s complicity in secrecy about the drone program “shameful.” Lule added, “I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis — and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven.”
Gee, why would the Saudis be embarrassed? US-Saudi security cooperation has a history dating to the 1950s. Saudi Arabia offered facilities for the American-led Desert Storm campaign to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. Yet the massive positioning of foreign forces in the land of the Islamic holy places, Mecca and Medina, later stirred controversy. When Osama bin Laden and his jihadi followers decried the presence of “infidel” armies on sacred territory, and used these boots on the ground as a pretext for the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Saudi defense minister ruled that bases inside the kingdom could not be used for attacks on Afghanistan’s Taliban or other Muslim targets. Accordingly, American installations, including the King Sultan airbase in Khobar province, were relocated to other Gulf spots such as Qatar.
There’s more, perhaps lots more. There have been many “targeted” attacks purportedly conducted by the US military or the CIA against suspected militants in Yemen in the past two or three years. There have also been “signature strikes.” These are not aimed at persons who intelligence agencies have identified as enemies of the US. Instead, “signature strikes” are robotic attacks triggered by evidence of “suspicious activities” or “patterns of movement” observed, by drones, from the air, such as loading rifles onto pickup trucks. Although lethal targeted attacks, especially against al-Awlaqi, his teenaged son, and at least two other American citizens have attracted the most attention of late, the signature attacks are even scarier. Yemenis are extraordinarily well armed, ranking alongside the US in number of firearms per capita. And gun-toting Yemenis almost certainly pack more firepower than their American counterparts: Markets in the northern part of the country sell bazookas and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Further, Toyota pickups are ubiquitous in Yemen; four-wheel drive vehicles are a logical choice for navigating the country’s unpaved mountain roads. Grenade launchers in Yemen pose no credible threat to the American homeland. But they might, conceivably, be a menace to Saudi Arabia.
Exactly whose forces launched which attacks remains an unsolved mystery. Washington neglects to release accurate data on its forays into Yemen, while the Yemeni regime wishes to convey the impression of Sanaa’s own prowess in counter-terror operations, and so keeps quiet about its foreign co-combatants.
There’s a third possibility. The Guardian recently suggested that some deadly bombings in Yemen were carried out not by American drones, or Yemeni counterparts, as often presumed, but rather “outsourced” to the Saudi air force. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa‘ud Al Faisal flatly denied these reports. But there were other reports that the first US drone strike in Yemen in 2013 was assisted by Saudi fighter jets.
Saudi weapons purchases are the lifeblood of Western arms manufacturers. In 2010, the Pentagon notified Congress of $60 billion in arms sales to the kingdom over the next five to ten years. If all goes well for the American weapons makers, this transfer will be the largest single package for any foreign country in US history. In the short term, however, according to the German magazine Der Speigel, European nations are topping their Yankee competitors: France comes in first with 2,168.6 million euros in sales, followed by Italy with 435.3 million euros and Great Britain with 328.8 million, contributing to total European sales of 3.3 billion euros or $4.4 billion. It makes sense that these armaments would be used, not merely stockpiled. True, documentation is thin. In 2010, Amnesty International said it was “extremely likely” — though difficult to verify — that Tornado fighter-bombers supplied by Britain to Saudi Arabia were used in indiscriminate attacks against al-Houthi rebels in northern Yemen that killed Yemeni civilians as well as militants.
The fact that America’s most prominent news organizations have not yet implicated Riyadh in the Obama administration’s war in Yemen is hardly evidence that Saudi interests and forces are not involved. The Times and the Post bury news of the kingdom’s military affairs beneath titillating tales about women drivers, athletes and lingerie sales. Scoops about clandestine bases, collateral murder and counter-revolutionary meddling are left to intrepid investigators, bloggers and British reporters. If Saudis aren’t worried about the reports of secret bases, the story goes, then why should anyone else care?
The dog is barking, but it’s got laryngitis.