Secret bases mark step-up in War on Terror

Sept. 22, 2011 at 2:37 PM

SANAA, Yemen, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Recent disclosures that the CIA is setting up a ring of secret bases for its unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa signal a sharp escalation in the U.S. wars against terror.

But they also underline how the United States is increasingly focusing on advanced technology to wage their array of conflicts -- six at the last count -- at a distance, and how the leading U.S. spy agency has become militarized and, in the words of one veteran agent, "one hell of a killing machine."

For many in these regions, U.S. reliance on clandestine operations and robot weapons underlines how the United States is expanding its global chain of military bases -- more than 850 of all sizes in 40 countries at the last count -- even as its power is on the wane.

The intensity of the drone war, particularly in Pakistan, has escalated sharply under U.S. President Barack Obama and been extended to Yemen and Somalia.

With retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, hero of Iraq and Afghanistan and author of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency manual, now running the CIA, it's likely the operational tempo in the drone campaign is going to be stepped up further.

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal ran lengthy reports Wednesday on the widening deployment of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

The Reaper is a more powerful and lethal version of the MQ-1 Predators that have been used for missile attacks on al-Qaida leaders since 2002.

The first successful drone strike using AGM-114 Hellfire missiles was carried out in the Maarib region of central Yemen Nov. 3 that year to assassinate Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, al-Qaida's leader in Yemen.

He was the suspected masterminded of the Oct. 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

That trail-blazing drone attack, in which five other men were killed, was generally seen as what Jane's Defense Weekly dubbed "the beginning of robotic warfare."

The legality of such killings, in a country with which the United States wasn't at war, was swiftly questioned. But the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush said the strike was carried out under a presidential finding authorizing global "kill or capture" operations against al-Qaida leaders following 9/11.

These days, drone strikes that kill al-Qaida chieftains, along with civilians, are rarely questioned by the U.S. political establishment.

The new UAV bases are reportedly in the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off East Africa; Ethiopia, a U.S. ally that sent troops into Somalia in December 2006 to crush an Islamist regime; and on the Arabian Peninsula.

French intelligence sources cite Saudi Arabia as the host country. The United States withdrew its forces from the kingdom shortly before the Iraq invasion in 2003 because their presence triggered al-Qaida attacks on the monarchy.

For that reason, it would seem unlikely that Saudis would permit even small U.S. units to deploy there again.

But Riyadh's extremely concerned that neighboring Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is making big gains while the country's torn by political upheaval, will become a springboard for renewed jihadist attacks on the kingdom.

So helping the Americans by providing a Reaper base to hammer al-Qaida in Yemen makes some sense.

Washington suspects AQAP is moving toward an operational alliance with the al-Shabaab Islamist group in Somalia and it seems prepared to pull out a lot of stops to prevent that.

Indeed, Petraeus warned the U.S. Congress Sept. 13 the jihadist forces in Yemen and Somalia were consolidating and preparing to target the United States.

Meantime, he said, jihadists in North Africa were extending their influence southward into West Africa, a growing source of oil for the United States.

The CIA has increasingly been conducting drone operations with the U.S. military Joint Special Operations Command.

But recent developments point to the agency's greatly enlarged counter-terrorism branch taking overall command of the ever-widening secret war.

It will also have free rein in Yemen and Somalia because of the absence of functioning governments in either conflict-ridden country -- and little congressional oversight so long as it keeps terror from U.S. shores.

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