By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates inSomaliaandYemen,U.S.officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The U.S.military has also flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones overYemen.
The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S.officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemenand Somalia, even as al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistanhas been weakened byU.S. counterterrorism operations.
TheU.S.government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries:Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya,Pakistan,SomaliaandYemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in theRepublicofSeychellesillustrate the efforts theUnited Statesis making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009.U.S.and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classifiedU.S.diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions overSomalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.
The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal thatU.S.officials asked leaders in theSeychellesto keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.
To allay concerns among islanders,U.S.officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, thatU.S.officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.
During a meeting with SeychellesPresident James Michel on Sept. 18, 2009, American diplomats said the U.S.government “would seek discrete [sic], specific discussions. . . to gain approval” to arm the Reapers “should the desire to do so ever arise,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting. Michel concurred, but asked U.S. officials to approach him exclusively for permission “and not anyone else” in his government, the cable reported.
This article first appeared in the Washington Post on Monday May 21, 2012.